November 8, 2013

Philip St. Clair

NEWTON TOWNSHIP

A bitter homestead close to the Interstate: boxes stacked
      all along the porch, fifteen or twenty acres of field corn
too stunted for July, cheap asphalt siding sagging at the eaves,
      and I remembered Granddad, who never wanted to farm.
He left home in the eighteen-nineties for work as a lumberjack:
      days in the first-growth forests, nights in the bunkhouse
drinking rye whiskey, playing slap-down euchre by a coal-oil lamp.
      When his father died, they sent for him to come back home
and settle down. He liked to chop down trees and stack firewood,
      Mom said. He didn’t care for much of anything else.
When the Germans surrendered, she was five: They were always
      going to kill the Kaiser but they never did
, she said.
That winter she saw sparks shoot past rust holes in the ductwork
      hung under her bedroom ceiling, and the first summer
she could work the fields she got her left hand caught in the baler:
      all they could do was flatten out its little bones and bind it
on a scrap of board. Once she told me that her mother, sleepless
      from chronic sore throat, dug out her pus-flecked tonsils
with a darning needle: Nobody had the money for a doctor, she said.
      They lost the farm from back taxes halfway through
the Great Depression: Granddad was in his sixties and moved in
      with his eldest son. From then on it was Argosy magazine,
the daily crossword puzzle, the Philco radio with the yellow dial.
      I was almost seven when Truman fired MacArthur
and we lived in town, next to a steel mill: every other week or so
      we drove out in the country to my uncle’s farm, past
the Ravenna arsenal, where they made bombs and mortar shells
      for the war going on in Korea. Mom told me not to gripe
about the fishy-tasting milk: They never clean the cream separator,
      she said. My older cousins never talked to me—too busy
forking hay to cows and toting feed to chicken coops, too sullen
      to bring them out and let me give them each a name.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets