Jane Craven

 

Freedom

Burial at Ornans

I Reconstruct My Great-Grandfather Who Died of Asthma at Age Fifty

88 Roads

 


 

Freedom

 
The night demands the day, the day the night,
and we are nothing if not transactional, slaves
to remittance tendered in the form of bodies, cash,
bloody perimeters. It is the fourth of July and we
are steeling ourselves against the clamorous evening,
absorbing quiet in our little house as the taproot
of a giant backyard sycamore sucks up last week’s
rain which has settled a hundred feet underground.
Wartime fortifications, broken buried stones,
surround my city and appear as tiny grass ridges
in aerial photographs. A gunfire exchange will still
crack the night air like a memory. In my kitchen,
I prepare tabouli—soaking the wheat, chopping
garlic, then mint, and I can’t shake the feeling
that I once dreamily clasped someone’s hand
in agreement, and unwittingly traded away
something boundless.
 
 
 
 


 

Burial at Ornans

 
The painting is a muddy wall of frock coats
and crape dresses below a long bone     of sky
the coffin     barely visible to the far left
nestles between pallbearers     the interment
of Courbet’s great-uncle     a proletariat
scene with an air of solemnity
usually reserved for saints
political     or religious
a spotted hunting dog
muzzle upturned     sniffs the air
stands at its owner’s side
some stare     at the waiting grave
a clutch of elderly women     look away
I see myself     among them     the lace-bonneted ones
on the ceremonious road     of hurt
and spattered hem     I am with them
as they turn their lined faces     from the old rites
and start for home     past chalk cliffs
seaward caves     gulping black water
grasslands     keening in the wind
and now as we are nothing more
than a fresh bereavement     I return to this place
to disappear     to follow silence
as it trails into the brown afternoon
see how closely     the dog     lopes at my heels
 
 
 
 


 

I Reconstruct My Great-Grandfather Who Died of Asthma at Age Fifty

The ceiling is covered with canvas, painted blue, . . . the central portion is filled out with a cluster of stars. –RAILROAD CAR JOURNAL, Locomotive Painters Association, 1898

 
The Lebanese restaurant in the old Italianate building where
my husband and I dine on warm pita, harissa oil, and farmed salmon
             is near where you arrived in the city
 
by horse, an old piebald, winter thatch trapped in his uncombed coat,
sorry resignation in every step.
 
You sold him to the first stable you saw, and with the money bought
tubes of lead white, Naples yellow, French ultramarine, and a fifth
             of Silver Leaf Whiskey.
 
When you were summoned from failing fields, wife and children taken
in by neighbors, the job, notice of which arrived by telegram,
             seemed promising though pay was not mentioned.
 
The boarding house on West Jones was unpainted, clapboards cupping
in places, rows of scraggly boxwoods framing the walk, random gaps
             where some had withered or been trampled into the dirt yard.
 
You hung your spare clothes on nails in an attic room, took a few swigs
and set out for the railyard where you would begin work the next day,
              painting the interiors of first-class cars.
 
The streets were wild with wisteria.
 
It overcame bare trees and broke into cascading lavender, the scent
enough to knock the fight out of a man.
 
It was early spring and the air chilled as the sun went down. Under
the stone arches of a viaduct, men surrounded a rusted oil drum
             full of fire.
 
Sparks floated skyward disappearing one by one.
 
The light cast their faces in burnished gold as they conversed. A woolen
scarf glowed like the scarlet drapery of old masters.
 
It was as if those men had met for a hundred years
at the confluence of rail lines, beneath the outline of black
             felted mountains of coal.
 
How human, you thought.
 
Their steady breath familiar, the way it mingled with wood smoke on
a brisk night, and how achingly you wanted to join them, to be held fast
             in an image, delivered of attachment, motion, dependency.
 
I think of your blood in my blood
 
and of how all endings are pitiable, the way they seem to verge
             on kinder worlds, fire-lit, impossibly close.
 
 
 
 


 

88 Roads

 
Impassable, this red clay county, its empty highways slick
with river fish.
 
I wish I could say their scales flare
 
like firecrackers on black mica, that because we are
upwind our nostrils fill only with pine resin
 
and bay laurel—I want to make it all disastrously beautiful.
 
But these dead are frozen in last gulp, rigid wall-eyed
bullets, lit up and stinking
 
in linear point perspective. Now hurricanes come
regular as tides, rake
 
everything across the coastal plain, leave
 
mattresses in trees, Huffys tangled in telephone wires,
6,000 hogs whose waterlogged bodies knocked against
 
sheet metal for days, until their sheds drained
and they were bulldozed into their own waste lagoons.
 
A neighbor woman taught me to swim
in a spring-fed pool she had lined with rocks
 
from a nearby pasture. As I mastered the front crawl
I learned to switch worlds with a turn of the head:
 
horses swatting flies with their tails, daylight—breath,
then turn, cold tannic darkness—breath held, absent.
 
Here is what I know of drowning: it’s quiet.
 
No splashing, waving, shouting—just an open mouth
sinking and rising above the surface, submersion
 
in less than a minute, consciousness receding, drawn back
to its fathomless origins, a chestnut horse
 
shaking the dust from its body in sunlight, an open field
before the rains.
 
 
 
 


JANE CRAVEN was born and raised in North Carolina. Her poems have appeared in The Columbia Review, Tar River Poetry, The Texas Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and Atlanta Review, among other journals. She is the recipient of a Universities and Colleges Academy of American Poets prize, a finalist for the Rita Dove Prize in Poetry, and winner of the 2019 Cloudbank Poetry Prize and The MacGuffin Poetry Hunt. Jane holds a B.A. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing-Poetry from North Carolina State University. She has worked as a telecommunications business analyst and as the director of a contemporary art museum. She currently teaches poetry for the Redbud Writing Project.


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