On the Family Mantle
My great grandfather fit into a cigar box
when he was born. His fingers were pale,
wrinkled like poorly rolled cigarettes.
They thought to place his cradle
in the trash heap next to the blue glass bottles
and empty tins of sardines
and the thigh bones of pigs,
but he refused to stop slurping milk and air,
to stop gasping and grasping.
He grew like a tree—no—
he grew like a window frame
covered in lead paint. No one noticed,
layer by layer and he was
immovable, thick boned, unyielding.
He married a woman with a pinched face,
punched out five children,
worked until his fingers were hard
burnt out nubs still grasping.
When he was old, they forced him into an asylum
and he died. No one wanted to bury him.
They wanted to throw him out with the old laundry,
with the piles of shit and shoelaces.
But his second son, my grandfather,
went with his own feed bucket of creek water,
his best wash cloth, his father’s best clothes,
and washed the body.
No one helped him as he dressed his father
like a too stiff-baby doll in his Sunday finest,
and wheeled him to the furnace.
He walked away with one cigar box full of ash.
I was three, lost amid so many legs, looking
for my grandmother’s black slacks among
the wrinkled knees, blue jeans rubbed soft,
faded tweed, pale yellow polyester,
swishy skirts, flowery hems, legs in tan pantyhose
like blue-veined sausages. Too many legs.
When I finally clutched onto her black pants and looked up
I saw an old man’s ragged smile.
There are no words for that first terror—
the right legs and wrong face, everyone’s pleased laughter.
Her parents promised themselves they’d hold her.
She was born perfectly dead, skin plum purple,
translucent, like a petal held up to a light.
Pictures for the baby book, one black and white
of their wedding bands slipped over her dusky hands.
Sometimes they think about the dust in her crib.
The palms of their hands still expect her kick.
Sometimes they turn the monitor on
Jenkins Farm Est. 1894
scrapyard shingles, tin sheets,
frayed blue tarp, dry rot, seedling twisting
the eaves, a dropped hem caught, a head split
open cantaloupe soft
Mae savors the juice that seeps from the peach’s tender flesh. She’s at that age, just past
21, when she starts to lose her teeth. She keeps them in a canning jar beneath her bed.
ribbed and rowed, the bones
of a butchered deer, a wind chime
clacking on the porch
A dark line marks each child’s height on the wall, a coffin measurement.
This is the family graveyard. They know not to talk about it.
lean children with feed buckets
a flock of chicken legs, plucked
clean, skin pebbled, pillows stuffed
with feathers, empty stomachs
echoing in the dark
Abigail doesn’t remember when she stopped dreaming about leaving,
when she cast hope aside, an unclasped necklace that slipped through the floor boards.
a leaning circle of buildings, of men
sipping whiskey where the hay
rots wet, a pile of potatoes,
little seeing eyes
With age and broken joints comes a creaking,
a whimper, Let our bones sink into the uncut green.
sun-stained, sunstrokes, a rolled tractor,
a field of corn, one thumb lost
to a grinder, skin sweetening like raspberries
red then dark and ripe,
a garbage pail, tin cans,
labels bleaching in the light
The sun sets over the fields, the hazy air catches the color, blazes
orange. His back aching, Charles watches, wishing it was fire.
The moon hung, a deflated balloon, the clouds—
dishrags soaked in dirty water. Father’s
nails black no matter
how many times he washed. At supper,
he cracked plates, snarled
for toothpicks. My mother warned my sister
and me to cover our faces. Father’s words
were june bugs scratching at the lights.
We didn’t want them
and their thorned feet
to get tangled in our hair, the grip
so tight they’d rip it from the roots.
Afterwards, my mother forced
a smile, her flashing teeth
pieces of broken wedding china.
I remember the picture of them we reframed—
his yellow leisure suit, the ivory
dress wilting over her hips,
the skin of that moon’s sallow cheek.
Black and White Portrait of My Father
Age four, face downturned,
with a mischievous smile.
his belly taut, rounded,
his own little drum.
Someone has cut
his hair into a Mohawk.
With one arm, he cradles
a live baby skunk against his chest.
With the other arm, he presses
a squirming raccoon into his side.
He has named them. They are his.
Some time later, a fox will steal
into the skunk’s cage,
the raccoon will disappear,
and my father’s least favorite uncle
will give him a coonskin cap
with familiar markings.
It will be the first time he knows hate.
He will refuse to name
until he holds his firstborn.
She will die six hours later.
But, here, in this photograph,
it is summer in Michigan.
He smiles, all that fur
hugging his body,
his first taste of love—
in the background
a few birch trees
and a rusted-out truck.
Blue Wedding Shoes
Halfway through the reception, my sister’s feet
are aching. Her new husband is no help.
He’s with his friends, smoking, flirting,
while her dress isn’t bending at the waist.
She looks elegant and pained as she slips
carefully onto a bench and catches my eye.
I walk over, kneel at her feet, grip
the gown’s hem. She nods and I sift
through the layers of white fabric
for her shoes. High-heeled. Blue.
A hidden splash of color, fantastic
and wild. My hands tremble as I undo
the straps, slide them off. She smiles and stands.
I’m left kneeling, these remnants in my hands.