BEFORE RIDING WEST
My grandfather’s grandfather killed a man
I’m told. The man had taken my grandfather’s
Grandfather’s brother’s life, some
Distant uncle of mine he’d have to be,
Whose name was never included
In the hand-me-downs of family lore.
Ol’ uncle Anonymous he’s known to us now.
My grandfather’s grandfather (Cornelius,
His name), tracked down the bastard
Who’d freed Anonymous’s soul. I’ve often
Imagined him cursing across Kentucky
On an unimpressive horse in the dead
Of the summer season, with that horrible fire
In his gut, and a bottle of something strong
Swishing about, and the hurry of the horse
In the buggy air, percussing as it proceeded.
I do wonder how he overtook him.
At a gallop, I wonder, or in some ramshackle shed,
Spouting the smoke of a meager meal,
Or by some finger-thin rivulet where,
Scrubbing his boot-bruised heels, he was clubbed
With the butt of the gun in the back of the head.
It doesn’t matter. Roped he was I’m certain, bound
Like a bundle of wheat, kicked somewhere soft,
Robbed from time to time of a breath or two
By a bushel of Kentucky knuckles.
It should be noted that good ol’ uncle Anonymous
Was a brute of a man, a man of a beast,
Seasoned sinner, known drunkard, and harasser
Of helpless creatures, who had, one grim day,
Ravaged a good woman, sister
Of the man who’d shot him, and who now sits
Suspended (bound and beaten) some lines up
Within this very tale. My grandfather
Cornelius was not unfamiliar
With his brother’s, my uncle’s, character,
As knowable then as his name isn’t
Nowadays, and he knew what his brother
Had done to the man he now gagged
With a dirty kerchief and struck across the face
With ringed fingers. Many years later
Cornelius conveyed to his wife
The sickening confusion he felt in his heart,
How he could hate a man so much
Whose only wrong was the avenging
Of a good woman raped, how
He could love and repay the death
Of a known scoundrel, his brother, who by all rights
Deserved his demise, remembering
How he had shot the man square in the face
Before riding west to Colorado.
—from Rattle #44, Summer 2014
J.P. Celia: “Frost said once, ‘I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.’ Writing this poem was exactly that. I was just as surprised by its ending as any first-time reader would be.”