November 23, 2017

Ekphrastic Challenge, October 2017: Artist’s Choice

 

You Moved Your Whole Town by Paul T. Corrigan

Image: “Biltmore Backyard” by Robb Shaffer. “You Moved Your Whole Town” was written by Paul T. Corrigan for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, October 2017, and selected as the Artist’s Choice.

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Paul T. Corrigan

YOU MOVED YOUR WHOLE TOWN

The fog at the Biltmore Estate hangs thick and low over the rolling hills, the white oak, red maple, and green spruce, the ground yellow with stubble and leaves. A hundred dollars admission will show you the banisters, the forty-three bathrooms, the Gilded Age. But you need no tour guide. You are an exile returning, looking for your home. For one generation seven generations ago, you lived on this land. Two years after Emancipation, two weeks after Appomattox, two days after a Union general marched through the last of the Confederacy in the North Carolina mountains, you founded a free black town here. Old Shiloh. In Old Shiloh, you built your own barns, you baked your own loaves, you blessed your own God, you betrothed your own lovers, you buried your own dead. In Old Shiloh, your children knew not shackles, for the first time in three centuries.

Who can know the weight of that.

In Old Shiloh, you lived twenty years, till George Washington Vanderbilt asked you to move. What could you do. You moved your whole town. He didn’t threaten, didn’t have to. You’d had a long education in giving whites what whites want. Why decline the cash. Why risk your chance to start again. Your farms were falling apart, they said. You were happy to sell, they said. You were always happy, they said. You moved your whole town. He paid you to move, more than the going rate, promised jobs, and delivered. You built Biltmore. You tended his trees, grew his garden, cleaned his cutlery, fixed his food. And you moved your whole town. You moved your people, your plows, your houses, your cows, your wagons, your mules, your clothes, your tools, your bibles, your church. You moved your cemetery, carefully exhuming both headstones and bones.

Who can know the weight of that.

Surely, when you moved, you left things behind, things you might now find. The hills stayed. The trees. A broken axle here, a lost axe head there, a chipped plow shear, a mallet, a pulley, a chimney stone, the wild growth from an untilled field. You listen for your own coughs and laughs and love cries. You would have welcomed a neighbor. He came as an owner. You inhabited the land. He uninhabited it. Who needs two hundred square miles of backyard? It’s not the deeds on file at county records that define belonging but the deeds of adults and children walking and working the soil. You, like the Cherokee before you, belong here. These mountains stand older and grander than a white man’s ego. His two hundred fifty rooms can’t contain all this roiling air. The big house will crumble, and Old Shiloh will still be here. You must have known. Because you did not salt the ground when you left.

Who can know the weight of that.

from Ekphrastic Challenge
October 2017, Artist’s Choice

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Comment from the artist, Robb Shaffer, on this selection: “The author of this work made me see the Biltmore Estate in a different perspective; it gave me an insight into how the place came to be. I liked the dramatic, fluid tone of the work and the picture that it painted as it tied into the photograph of the Biltmore backyard. Without scolding, the author helps the reader see what privilege can do, how privilege can move a town to clear a space for its own backyard. When the author mentions the native people displaced before the town was built, it invites further contemplation into how and why we are where we are, and the sacrifices people made in order for us to get there.”

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November 22, 2017

K. H.

THE VISIT

“Haven’t just sat and talked
in a while,” my father says as he wheels
a low chair to my side.
But we’re not here
to talk. The cleaning will take
fifteen minutes, tops. I lean back
in the stiff operatory chair.
Fluorescent light shines down
my gullet. The thing about dentists
is that they’re always demanding you
to smile, bite down, open up,
rinse. He just needs you
to listen. “She’s not well,”
he shakes his head, meaning
the stepmother I haven’t seen in years
because she loved to dance
so hard in bars she broke
her ankle, and drinking made
the dentist snap his cell phone
in half, sloppy in the lobby
of an Olive Garden,
mean. “I still see her
sometimes,” he says and removes
his fingers from a glove
to comb thin grays
over his bald spot.
My mouth is full
of gauze. I can only offer
variations of mhmm’s as he tries
to wipe gunk on the napkin
wrapped around my neck
like a bib, misses,
stains my shirt instead. The closest
we will be for months.
I like to think it’s better
this way—he’s good
at his job, makes my mouth
nice and numb and free
of rot, and small talk is just
small talk. The next appointment is no
rush. “It’s so weird,” he says
when I stand with clean teeth.
“When your kids are grown, and don’t
need you anymore, and suddenly
you’re their dentist,” he laughs
because it’s better this way,
maybe it’s better. I swallow
blood. When I was little
and losing baby teeth, I hated
their volatility. “I just want
to look,” he’d say
with a tobacco-stained
grin. I never felt my teeth
leave their sockets.

from Rattle #57, Summer 2017
Tribute to Rust Belt Poets

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K. H.: “I was raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, went to college in Ohio, and still live in Columbus. The stereotypical writer is supposed to live in New York City, not flyover country. I didn’t always love the Rust Belt—the hint of Pittsburghese that clings to my voice, that sense of isolation that living in a town with one main street, surrounded by cornfields, fosters. But it is a place of poetry, too.”

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November 21, 2017

Grace Bauer

RROSE SÉLAVY NO LONGER SINGS ‘LA VIE EN ROSE’

How many years can a woman pose for a man
in the same bad hat and ratty fur
before the world goes gray before her eyes
and even la-de-la-de-la-de-la sounds like the blues?

How many nights can she lie alone while
the avant garde goes galloping toward the future
on their hobbyhorse? I tell you, my heart may belong
to da-da, but even an alter ego needs l’amour

which is more than a mere word and goes beyond mechanics.
Love—so easy to make, yet more difficult to create
by far than art. That’s why some people call
this kind of song a torch. And I keep singing—
la, de, la—to make something burn.

from Rattle #10, Winter 1998

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Grace Bauer: “I am currently bent on surviving another winter in Nebraska, which might explain the longing for otherwise and elsewhere that keeps cropping up in my poems.”

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November 20, 2017

Kelly Fordon

WHO AM I?

I have eaten all your almonds
because you left them
on the counter. A better person
would not have done it.
A slightly better person
would have done it,
but left a note.
You would have eaten
mine though you say
you would not rob a bank.
I would only rob a bank
if I ran out of other options.
I go to church
and copy the rules out
on my hand.
When I break one,
I get absolution
from the priest.
When I say penance,
I feel better right away.
I shouldn’t have yelled
at that woman, but she
is a bitch. I shouldn’t have
slapped her, but she deserved it.
I am going to pray
until I am no longer angry,
and if I am still angry,
I will take it out on the maid,
who is stupid,
who should have learned
to speak English,
and then she would not
have had to be a maid.
I should not buy
(insert word here)
But I never buy myself
anything really.
I have not bought anything
since last year when I
purchased the Mac.
I needed that for
my foundation.
It’s a non-profit
dedicated to helping
people with problems.
There are so many.

from Rattle #57, Summer 2017
Tribute to Rust Belt Poets

[download audio]

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Kelly Fordon: “Even though I spent a lot of time in the Midwest as a child, I was not truly a resident of the Rust Belt until I moved to Michigan in the ’90s with my husband and settled in the suburbs of Detroit. At that time, I was shocked by the divisiveness between the city and suburbs. I remain in shock. This poem reflects some of what I have witnessed in terms of privileged sensibility and racism in the suburbs.” (website)

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November 19, 2017

Devi S. Laskar

THOUGH THE STARS WALK BACKWARD

after E.E. Cummings

People worry over it as if it were a heavy object,
Atlas carrying the world on his back, always
a black and white sketch of the yoked oxen
next to the definition in the illustrated dictionary—

Atlas carrying the world on his back, always
it is as big and small as you wish it to be,
next to the definition in the illustrated dictionary.
The roll of the years and the quick tick of the hours.

It is as big and small as you wish it to be:
a thin scratch where the skin is torn open,
the roll of the hours and the quick tick of the years
and at once a gash that scars, requiring stitches.

A thin scratch where the skin is torn open.
Carry it as if it were a dream, half-remembered,
and at once a gash that scars requiring stitches
silvery around the measures, sometimes sweet.

Carry it as if it were a dream, half-remembered,
carry it as if it were a song, auld lang syne
silvery around the measures, sometimes sweet—
your tongue tripping over the last line.

Carry it as if it were a song, auld lang syne,
carry it the way a tree would carry it,
your tongue tripping over the last line
all bark, all roots, all sticky gold sap.

Carry it the way a tree would carry it,
stooping to it but not breaking its boughs—
all bark, all roots, all sticky gold sap.
Carry it as if you had life expectancy

stooping to it but not breaking its boughs;
and freedom of an ocean breeze:
Carry it as if you had life expectancy
and a sunset to look forward to

and freedom of an ocean breeze.
A black and white sketch of the yoked oxen
and a sunset to look forward to.
People worship it as if it were a heavy object.

from Poets Respond
November 19, 2017

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Devi S. Laskar: “This is my response to a series of mass-killings, and the grief and the guilt for living while people so young were murdered.” (website)

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November 18, 2017

Matthew Kinzelberg (grade 6)

THE LAST LOOK

At the beach
The last moment
Watching the waves
That crash against
The sand
My dad watching over me
Like a star
The sunset going down
I felt like I was
Taking my last breath
Like my dad did
I will never forget him
I have a task he asked
Me to do
To play baseball
The way he taught me.

from Rattle #9, Summer 1998
Tribute to Children

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November 17, 2017

William Evans

I SAY CATHEDRAL WHEN I MEAN GUNPOWDER

Over winter break, Frank put a shotgun
in his mouth and killed himself in his mother’s
home, which was not his home, but I can under-
stand not wanting to die in a place you’re not sure

will care for your bones after you’ve left them.
Maybe break is a generous word because I was
back in the home my father had left and I was 
never going back to school, but ghosts have 

a way of knowing where all keys are hidden,
what kind of pacification the most guarded
beasts will submit to. It is 2 a.m. and a person 
I have left behind is telling me someone I had

lived with is trapped behind the present tense
forever. Now it is four days later and I am
in my best clothes driving into Fairfield County
where I was once called nigger on the baseball

field, where I once needed a coach to walk
with me to the bus to avoid my own purging
and a teammate told me that it wasn’t because
I was Black, but because I was that good,

because I was not old enough to be two
things at one time yet. Frank loved Wu-Tang
and once argued me who had the best verse
on Triumph, but no one at this funeral knows

this story, at least not the part where Frank
once kissed my forehead at a party while
we re-enacted Ghost and Rae over the music
too loud for anyone to be truly sober that night.

There is a humming here, whenever another
mourner approaches me, with a trespass glare
and I hope that Frank knows that I came here,
again to a tree that looks at my neck and misremembers

gravity, to see him lowered into the world that
tries to claim me, each and every day. I don’t want
him to see me as brave, but to know that I, too,
understand what it means to walk into a cathedral

and hear every lock turn behind you, that the stained 
glass is sometimes just light born in a better neighborhood
and I can still smell the gunpowder you swallowed every time 
I startle a flock of birds, that will never again be still.

from Rattle #57, Summer 2017
Tribute to Rust Belt Poets

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William Evans: “I think being from the Midwest is a unique negotiation for a writer as I often find myself putting forth an idea that isn’t so much profound as it is making a statement of awareness for readers. I often feel that the aesthetic of many poets outside of the Rust Belt is an affirming action that confirms or reinforces what we may believe about the location already. In my part of the country, I think the writers are often defending their home. It’s a pursuit of not only relevance but of reverence of where our voice fits in the national conversation. This poem, ‘I Say Cathedral When I Mean Gunpowder,’ feels particularly Midwest when it encounters the shifting environments, hard-to-penetrate culture, and realities of what being in the middle of the country demands.” (website)

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