July 2, 2009

Ted Gilley

THE TULIP TREE

If you were lucky enough to live in Henry County, Virginia,
in 1962, when the knitting mills’ softball teams lifted red dust
as fine as smoke into the lights of Brown Street field
          on Friday nights;

where the wives of veterans sewed a thousand miles of waistbands
into a million pairs of underpants they tossed into the piecework bins
and bent over the hot machine to do it again before the whistle blew
          its breath down their throats;

and where children charged through the elbows and knees
of faded homemade clothes that couldn’t last long enough
to get passed down to their brothers and sisters,
          racing to catch up,

you would have seen a landscape bruised by the wheels of bicycles
left lying in the red dirt in the rain to rust overnight,
children hurtling down paths through the scrub pines
          all summer long,

some of them letting go, Daniel Simmons one of these,
shot by a friend in the woods as they hunted squirrels
and laid to rest in the green of the new graveyard,
          who never got the chance

to lie or to love or to learn the difference on the hot nights
when the girls who were almost women and distantly available
pressed their lips unceremoniously against yours
          in the dark car

to taste the breath of smoke and Coke and then come in late,
mesmerized in the light of the kitchen’s fluorescent halo
like an animal in a stall and go on up to bed
          and dream

of becoming a human being and to imagine, at breakfast,
that their parents were going the other way
when in fact they were just going to work,
          gathering again at the mill’s gate,

which lay in view of the school with its antique entrances
for boys and for girls—one each, for the purpose of keeping apart
those who could not be kept apart and knew it, who chewed pencils
          and spit blood

and wrote in their yearbooks of their forever-love, if girls,
and It’s been nice knowing ya, asshole, if boys,
who together fumbled the refined cotton and the elastic
          into something that would hold

until it gave way and who, when that moment came, were so
quieted the pale dye ran out of their eyes. The mills moved south,
the young turned away and the old reached out too late to hold them,
          and the whole cloth

emerged, neatly folded and forgotten—almost as if it had never existed—
until it lay at last in the bottom drawer of a dresser
at the top of the stairs where I lifted out, molted back almost into
          its constituent threads,

my sister’s blanket, from which as a child she was inseparable
and which, like her nature, was of a flannelling softness,
this agreeable and defeated blue fragment
          so covered with years

it could not bear that it absorbed them the way the red clay
wrapped its legs around the rain and shook with its pounding,
the scarlet pigment seething brightly beneath the sky, the wet hills
          vivid as a dream

the tulip tree—drowsy in captivity, clever in the way its black fingers
sifted starlings from the air—shook its head to awaken from, opening
the throats of its extravagant white and golden flowers to speak
          its single perfumed word.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention