The Gospel of Junior
The Book of Junior was economical,
only needing a half dozen commandments:
Gardening is a sacrament,
your tithe paid with hoe and bent back.
Keep everything Godly clean.
Keep the Sabbath, no matter
what the hayfield says.
In fact, go to church every time the door opens
but don’t crow about it.
Your life will tell the tale.
Most of all, don’t throw things away.
Everything, all of it, is a gift.
My dad’s dime store dungeon of detritus
down in the dark basement was a wonder.
Nothing escaped him,
not the broken or rusty
the warped or the worn.
Dozens of nails driven in joists
held bags of treasure:
screws, nails, nuts and bolts,
belts, brackets, brushes and buckets ---
anything you could ever want or need
or never want or need.
His underground hardware was a goldmine
to the tinkerer or child of the Depression.
He could’ve bought new
but that’s heresy
in his anti-prosperity gospel.
Living cheap is living humble.
Transcendence is to be saved
by what’s broken,
sanctification sent by self-sufficiency ---
Grace from going without.
Junior was the camel
passing through that needle’s eye
a piece of broken pipe in one hand
rusty wire in the other,
his dusty broken-down brogans
with the recycled laces
shuffling down that Redemption Road.
Each spring on his postage stamp of earth the same rituals:
At the first warm breeze out came the two-by-fours
nailed together into a rectangle
where he tenderly pushed lettuce seeds into soft mud
draped the airy muslin covering over it all
like a communion table waiting for the church bell
stepped back and smiled.
Consecrate this crop.
The days had to lengthen
before the rest could join in.
The old rusty push-plow of his ancestors
a hoe he had kept from the barn of his boyhood ---
lifelong tie to the gardens of the dead.
It is right to give thanks and praise.
He used the creek and tree line in April
to sight the straight line that would become
by the hot buzz of August
a choir of corn releasing soft hallelujahs.
Beans would be the kneeling women at the altar,
onions the sour deacons of the doxology,
squash women in yellow bonnets and calico of his youth,
sweet fat cabbage babies wafting and waving,
in the blinding sun’s light.
We are what feeds us.
He plunged little crosses in the ground
where tomatoes, smeared with stigmata
of juicy joy, would shine over the garden.
Not a thing wrong with the bread and the wine
but a country boy had to have beans.
No communion wafer unless it was made with ground corn.
Let us keep the feast, lift up our hearts.
And my father, the high priest of the scriptural lines
of this bright dusty kingdom,
giving absolution with green garden hose in days of drought
would know precisely when to slowly lift the cloth
from that communion table, pinch tender shoots
to lay on his tongue, just the tiniest bite,
Take and eat.
This refuge, this is all ---
Our salad days.
When Dad stepped out the backdoor
he met Clinch Mountain’s majestic face,
her specter changing from green to gold
to gray and black and back again ---
reference point eternal
as year after year clicked faster by.
To his right, he could see
through trees’ bare winter arms
the home he was born in,
the pasture where he ran and cried
when first his father, then his grandfather died,
leaving him alone in a house of women.
He could see his cattle
grazing up there now, unaware
of any tragedy, peacefully breathing
under the mountain’s shadow and wind.
To his left, the church
that centered his days, built on land
deeded by great-grandfather,
from that same mountain mother.
Its organ and piano rang,
rang through his days
just like the big bell
on its steeple overhead
his family had also helped hang up there
had prayed under, mourned under,
that often brought a smile to his face
with its noon tune as he plowed,
planted, pulled and hauled in his garden
merely yards away,
smiling at this life in the shadows
of all he was or could be
living where everything had happened that mattered ---
everything that mattered had happened ---
he could see it all right there
on that one little spot so small
invisible even to the heavens.
But to say it was a small life
is to misunderstand.
What profiteth a man to rush about,
live big, move off to hostile climates,
losing sight of that long arc
of loss and longing and love.
It is a special gift to bloom
where you’re planted,
grown in the fine sand
of blind luck and whimsy,
the tiny cosmos of root, stem, and vein.
So now it’s winter again yet
sunrise and sunset make us forget
so stunning the color spraying from ridges.
In the icy clear brittle blue air above,
the mountain grays like a grandmother,
death strolls close by — the mundane maudlin.
It would be fitting to go then.
But you left in summer
when sweet calves quivered on new legs,
peepers and lightning bugs surfaced at gloaming
supplying the soundtrack of summer.
The hay field was high green grace,
leaves reaching their full glory
bluebirds nesting, soft stems of new irises
waving in the wind’s parade.
Why not wait until it would be easier to let go?
I think it was to carry the color with you
in the soul’s eye,
go out on top
in the highest of high notes
wearing the beauty shroud
to remind us all
our last day
will be sudden and bright.
My father owned silence
the way seasons own the trees.
He avoided words,
used looks, gestures, altered breathing
but nothing dramatic usually.
Emotion is what occurred
at other people’s houses.
I guess that’s why this clings like beggar lice:
After one of many long days when he missed supper
working two jobs he finally sat down at 9
before a plate that was four hours old.
I froze in disbelief in the doorway
when he threw a slice of mushy tomato
from his plate at my mother
standing at the sink,
missed her and hit the just-ironed curtain.
Her stiff back a signboard of rage and hurt,
she didn’t even turn around,
the only sound the splashing of the dishwater
that hid her hands while he ate and
I backed away, backed away from them
silent witness to their silent witness
the soft heart of the tomato
a blood red flag
by my mother’s head.
I wish I was
I want to be 1
who can quote chapter and verse
& just go on & don we now our gay apparel
build a fire roasting chestnuts
me of the 30-year Santa collection
3 Christmas trees every hall
decked out, goofy sweaters, presents
for everyone bells and snowmen
& tinsel and wreaths stale as Claxton fruitcake joy to the world
1 of the wise men is missing and the star, too
fa la la la lifetime of Kodak moments he was never in
but behind the lens except that 1 in the cheap Santa suit
cotton ball beard he wore every year
my baby sister’s eyes and mouth a perfect
O holy night of fear and awe not recognizing the stick skinny
Santa with grease under his nails let nothing you dismay let
nothing you dismay.
Maybe Tragedy Is Too Strong a Word
I hadn’t slept but a couple of hours.
Excitement charged the air. At daylight all six of us piled in that Ford Fairlane
--- our perpetual clown car. Twenty dollars a payday stuffed in his sock drawer
fueled my father’s plan; long days, longer nights in the factory were now
funding the Redemption close at hand. Once we hit South Carolina the road
flattened out, the sky doubled. Gulls flew honor escort.
Factory workers with 4 kids can’t afford beachfront.
But a street back we could smell the sea. My sisters spilled their suitcases
Mother had spent hours packing and in minutes our father was leading
the parade snaking across the street and down the dune all white bellies and legs
marching into the sea. We hit the waves, surf so rough we could barely
stand. I saw the black cloud way out on the horizon, the dark look crowding
my father’s features. After less than an hour, the pouring rain drove us in.
It rained and rained and rained. We didn’t even want to go scour the junk shops
for those outhouse salt and pepper shakers, and turtles, and porpoises
all with Myrtle Beach, SC on the side.
Six crammed into small hotel room watching soap operas, the two little ones
bickering. It stopped raining on the third day, our last day, and we scurried
back out into the salty froth. The sea was almost solid white, still breaking
from the constant wind. The little ones could only splash at the edge. One
big wave knocked me down, picked me up, sent me tumbling end over end,
life blurred, I drowned for a minute, then the wave’s hard hand hammered
my head straight into the sand, filled my ears, nose, lungs with the
stinging brine. I crawled out with matted hair, spit out of the sea
a beached mermaid. “Let’s go.” My father seemed a few inches shorter.
The sadness sat on all of us, an anchor weight on our chests.
He didn’t speak all the way home unless he had to. I got to ride up front with him.
By dark, down to the last long curvy road toward home, the sudden fatigue
of a year’s savings wasted, another year looming standing over that hot machine
in a room with no air, a life without a breeze, had reached his cellular level.
He aged 10 years. He started taking the curves on the wrong side of the road
as home and factory and life got closer and closer. Is he trying, I wondered,
to kill us all? Maybe he thinks that’s best. “It will take me a week,”
My mother said over my left shoulder, “There’s sand everywhere. Everything
Taking Inventory: His Hammer
You always appreciated good tools.
Your Craftsmen hammer fits balanced
Perfect in the hand
I grip the worn faded pink center
Of the red handle
Turn the smooth silver face to mine
See the pale reflection
Blur to abstraction
Then drive the white nail home
With one blow.