Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl
-for Adrienne Rich
Heat waves rose with gas fumes from the pump
which snaked from the clacking tank of leaded regular.
My small hands calloused from working, sunup to sundown,
I kicked at the pot-holed gravel and dirt parking lot
as car after car,
fish-finned, eight-cylindered, big-bellied cars,
bumped from the long line off Highway 74.
This was my father's store.
After the last three-day drunk,
another week in jail, another factory boss who said,
as the aunts hovered, hounding him to commit me
to the state orphanage, and now with no job
and a child to raise,
he walked the mile to where Old Hasty crossed the highway
to turn into Abattoir Road and busked a month-to-month lease
with Curt Traywick, so there we were, my father and I
and the gas station, flat-roofed, oily-floored, cinder blocked,
heavy-haunched between the slaughter house and Traywick's junkyard,
just in time
for the gas shortage of '73.
He couldn't raise a girl, the aunts said.
His wife dead and he a man,
a poor man,
unlucky with money, they said
as the sky washed out like a bleached dish rag and the sun pressed down on us
like a fever,
even the weeds, sharp-edged with drought, hunkered down in their shrouds of
as I took it in,
then threw it back up,
staggering, at least once each day, into the glint of ditches littered
with busted bottles and shotgun-blasted beer cans
to vomit and stumbling back out,
wiping my mouth with the salt-specked back of my hand
to trudge on, past the mildewed clapboard and tar paper shacks,
past old Mrs. Little's who, after she married, never left her yard again,
past the Marsh's, all those kids I wasn't supposed to play with,
though I did, yes I did,
not minding the bowed plywood splayed across the hole in their living room's floor,
the bare walls and empty closets, no toys,
my brothers' old clothes washed in a bucket and hung out across the barbed wire
took it in and kept on walking
to my father's store where the old men spread their legs, comfortable in their
straddling the spittoons, old coffee cans specked with gloms of tobacco spit,
and drank their six ounce colas, as they whispered about the black kids
going to white schools,
the school board members' houses bombed
and Frank Gaddy said we shouldn't have solar power
because, once we go up there and suck up all the sun,
well that's the only sun we got and then where would we be?
and I'd find myself clambering from a ditch, a taste rank and fusty in my mouth,
gas pumps empty until the next week's delivery,
then the concrete floor of the abattoir,
slick with blood and hose spray,
the dripping roof mazed with rusting pipes
the hours I pressed against the massive brick-block walls
in the cool, dark interior
the odor of shit and guts
seeped so deep into my skin and the coils of my brain
I could imagine myself dead, condemned
to this mass burial of the damned,
cow after cow beaten
up the wooden chute to where Big John,
raised his sledge hammer,
between the wet brown eyes and long curled lashes,
slammed it down, shattering the skull,
then the sheer brutal, muscle-tearing work:
Big John, LeRoy and my oldest brother
sawing through muscle and tendon and bone,
their white coats so blood-splattered,
so gashed, smeared and slopped,
I'd scan their bodies for wounds.
Time and years slip and on the newspaper's front pages
flame and smoke billow off cross-legged monks,
Buddhist Barbeque, the generals say,
as my brother disappears somewhere in the open maw of the war
that each night breaks across the black and white
and for two weeks every year lifts from the 13-inch screen
and rumbles into the fields along with late autumn's chill,
air spun with dust from the choppers' blade-blast,
engines thunking and shuddering as anti-aircraft fire
and fists of flak punch through trees to blow holes in the sky.
Just pretending, my brother says.
Home on last leave, he sulks in his army greens,
calling them mama's boys,
the Carolina National Guard,
who rent our fields each year,
telling me not to worry,
when men hang from choppers pummeling the air
with machine gun fire,
don't be afraid, he says, even that day the sun drops
through pines to spark off tanks huddled
in scrub and cut branches before it flames out
in sweet gum, that day the helicopter,
going in for the night,
sputters in sulphur-smoke, blades slowed, then stopped,
and like some mythical beast shot from air,
sinks sideways through stained light to crash in the stubbled field.
The last winter in the greenhouse, I limped
to my truck radio, silvering a path through frozen grass,
night cracking with frost, to hear the reporter's panicked
voice traveling half the world with the explosions and screech of rockets.
That last winter in the greenhouse, I read how in 1099,
crusaders scaled the walls
and for two days killed each and every Jew and Muslim
who had lived there in Jerusalem together in peace,
multitude of corpses, scattered arms, legs piled and heaped,
covering the floor, the blood-flooded floor,
bodies twisting underground,
so many bodies now, they hold hands
beneath the continents and across the oceans
and begin their slow rise to the surface
Flame, smoke, the bonfires in the neighbor's fields
looked like the eyes of wild animals creeping nearer.
Our father left for the night shift at the cotton mill,
our mother tossed in bed readying for the 4 a.m. shift.
I heard them whispering, my older brothers, the three
who had not yet disappeared into the war,
that gaping mouth which had already swigged down
then spit back up so many neighbors: Gary Griffin,
his knees clamped together with metal, Eddy Gaddy,
Frank's baby boy, stretched out in Marshville Cemetery
beneath a ragged plot of sun-sucked fescue.
They stuffed pillows under their covers
so their bunks looked like fresh-mounded graves
and scrabbled across the fields and slick rocks of Lanes Creek
as I scurried along after them, crying, wait, wait
until we got to where the people floated
in and out of the scruffed moon's shadow
their odd white robes and strange masks glowing in moth-light,
just their dark eyes glaring out,
fires upside down and multiplied in their pupils.
Someone shouted from the bed of a pickup
and other kids fluttered between the fires playing tag
but I was frozen, pinned by the flames flickering off my leg braces,
those peep-holed masks which made me think of wild animals at the wood's edge,
how all they had to do was close their eyes to disappear.
Mike ran by and slapped me; you're free, run,
but I couldn't run, clumsy in my braces,
wasn't free, fear crawling from my toes to my throat like spiders.
Somebody knew my name, somebody thrust a plate of barbecue into my hands
but I couldn't eat, flame, smoke, in the fields,
in the newspaper, and the free clinic doctor told my mama, Feed that baby.
but I wouldn't eat, curling into myself, the special shoes I wore,
legs curved, the clunky braces, too upset to eat,
war in the field that shook the clapboard house, war
on the grainy black and white, war on the front page,
sauerkraut and fatback, fried chicken, apple pie, biscuits
and gravy, fig preserves, bowls of creamed corn and smashed
potatoes, my father pulling a knife on my mother, she slamming
him across the head with the tray off my high chair, pigeon-toed,
I wouldn't eat, first word years late, words falling
like lead shot around my feet, couldn't eat, my brother
in his army greens, sheriff driving through with his mega-phone
on the way across the state border, shouting for people to come,
Bring your guns, Freedom Fighters are marching on Monroe.
My father hooked the plow to the horses, my mother picked up her hoe,
Come on, she said, and we trudged behind her, hoes dragging the hard-pan,
headed for the cotton where weeks before dead men had lain,
corpses scattered, just playing, my brother said, weather all that spring
scalmy, thick fog in which the dead put on their coats
and search the long, empty halls for their frayed and musty suitcases,
and I wouldn't eat, last year's corn on the cob pulled from the bowels
of the deep freeze, fried potatoes, pork chops, sweet tea, peach cobbler,
we too tired to even talk about the thousands who answered the sheriff's call,
low-flying planes over the black doctor's house, black WWII
vets shooting back, men marching through rice paddies, woman
holding her child curled in the burn of napalm, holding up a shoe
from the rubble of the bombed church, skinned cows shuddering
through air, Leroy's entire body straining against the pulley, my brother,
and later a different brother and his wife, blood-spattered, hands
and feet swollen, girl running naked and screaming into the picture,
another man pouring gas on himself, couldn't eat, smoke and flame,
as tanks grumbled past, as toy helicopters chewed through the TV's static
and lifted into a stained sky, a camera panning the bloated bodies
face down in water against the backdrop of jungle, and choppers
skimmed the trees as I thought the air exploded though my brother said
they were just playing and my mother gathered up the leftover cornbread,
the pot of beans, scraps of fried fatback and pork chops and said,
come on so I crawled into the back seat of the split-pea green Plymouth
and she gripped the steering wheel, struggling, balancing
on the edge of the rutted tractor path to the one-room shack
with green roofing tile running up two sides
so that it seemed to sprout from the cotton.
A tin plate, cup, fork, knife,
hung on the wall behind the pot-bellied wood stove.
Mama and Jo-Anne sat on the one army cot, sprangly with grief,
me and Alvin and Teresa, both of them wearing my outgrown clothes,
sprawled on the rough-plank floor, Jo-Anne,
no work except at harvest, mama driving her children
to the free clinic, mama slumped down in the car seat, what would
people think, a white and a black woman, friends,
What we sold: Penny candy. Black kids traded cola bottles they'd scrounged
from the ditches for it: Mary Janes and Squirrel Chews, bubble gum
and Tootsie Rolls. Cigarettes. Chewing tobacco. Snuff. Gas.
A wheel of cheddar cheese that sweated on the counter all day.
Sardines, Vienna sausage, and potted meat. Nabs, chips, and sodas.
Lunch was the reek of sardines keyed open, peeled back, and soaked in vinegar.
Lunch traipsed in with the workers wearing its blood-slick rubber boots
and stinking of the bitter shit of pigs, chicken, and turkey.
I took it in
and ran out back, to where the store's cinder block walls
gave way to the sagging barbed wire holding in the wrecked and junked cars,
to throw it up.
We didn't sell enough to lift us from poverty.
Four cousins already at the state orphanage. Aunts hovering.
Every Friday night we sprinkled the store's oily floor with sawdust
and the next morning, swept out the week's tramplings.
Just decrees of God, the Christian historian wrote, calling
the massacred infidels, these inventors of writing and the decimal system.
For years I refused these memories of living in a greenhouse,
scummed plastic beating in wind, but, like then, ice scrims
the glass panes, trees creak in wind,
moon hung over this month of hunger, this month of coyote howl,
as through the static in the hand-wound radio
here in this off-the-grid,
one-room cabin in the woods where I now live,
a man describes the airplanes that came early that morning,
his house miles from any possible military target,
his voice crossing vast lands and an ocean,
nine members of his family dead. I was asleep, he says,
Why bomb here? Here there is no food, no water. Here there is nothing.
Time shifts, years pass, and through the fine mesh wire
of the hand-wound's speaker
from somewhere, Radio Moscow, Voice of Beijing, Netherlands or Radio Havana,
the announcer says, the so-called war on terror,
and then the shouts, the cries,
cutting to the Iraqi woman who has waited four hours in line, just gas
for the house generator, she says, as does the man
who has slept overnight in line at the station
in the baking sun, in the miles long lines,
sun glinting off the cars, sparking off the highway, ground shaking,
my father sneaking boot-leg from under the counter, tanks
shuddering past, just pretending, my brother says, and walks up
the long ramp of the plane, steps into those great unhinged jaws
which slowly clamp shut as the engines rev and another window
whisks down and another child in the back seat says that kid's
younger than me, another mother, her face creased with worry,
hushes him, a father ordering Fill ‘er up, can't you, air exploding,
helicopters thwonking over the hill, how many times that winter
and early spring I limped to my truck radio to hear
grown men sobbing, thousands of civilians dead,
circling the earth, the dead closer now
rocking back in their worm-riddled bones
the innocent dead, the innocent dead
this thing we don't understand, the innocent dead,
the innocent dead twisting underground,
their names must be heard,
must be said over and over, prayers for the dead
who come closer, finally walking among us, their hair matted,
clothes hanging in shreds, they whisper in our ears, voices
growing louder, as I stand here, storm billowing in, swallowing
the sky and the distant mountain, everything suddenly gone,
as if the day promised me in so many Sunday school lessons
at last has come, and I, all these stored memories within memories
thudding past, am left here, as if in limbo, al-A'raf, not damned,
yet unable to enter the garden of paradise with the innocent dead,
wind whispering their names, wind whispering earth,
the bloodied river, whispering earth boiling, earth this dark,
A Short Drop to Nothing
I can't say what of this day or its lack
has caused me to weary on this floating dock
in the drift of the water's warp and wrest,
with the indifferent sun, that seed-heavy sack,
tremulous over the pines, spilling its chaff.
Geese lift from the far hill in the last light,
unfurl above alders, dip and scrape across the pond,
and I don't know how much longer I can wait
as the wind, smelling of leaf rot and dung,
tugs the evening over this darkening land.
At Winter's Edge
Hard to imagine the creek without this luxury of destruction,
the dam broken
as if the water squeezed between it and the scrub-choked cliff
thought it a scar to be accounted for,
then taken in.
Here where the pleats and creases of the flood-sheared slope
are most severe,
a crust of ground rock and silt laces the stones
each time water surges from the failed banks.
In summer, flood-gleaned seed of spurge, creeping cress,
fleshy bulbs of horseradish and sapling bitternut
reclaim the slime-slick dam
knotted with weed and yellow bloom.
But not now. The year having rushed to waste-
the hickory pushes toward the current,
blanched vines rot,
husks whisk in coarse wind
and a spindly-stemmed privet clings
on the dam's cusp in a cove of sand and pebble,
in the rock's contraction and swell.
Each year it's like this: the outward reaches
of sandspit and shaded tucks
first to freeze and last to thaw.
Does it matter if ice marks the season's approach or wane?
Grief enough cleaves this wrecked land with beauty.
The privet is doomed.
-from Carolina Ghost Woods
BIO: Judy Jordan’s first book of poetry, Carolina Ghost Woods, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award, the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award, the Oscar Arnold Young Book Prize of the Poetry Council of North Carolina, and the Utah Book of the Year Award for Poetry. A book-length poem, 60 Cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance, was released in 2005 by Louisiana State UP. Her third manuscript, Hunger, which centers around two years of semi-homelessness during which she lived in a half-collapsed greenhouse is with Louisiana State UP. A vegan, Jordan currently lives off-grid, surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest in a Thoreau-size cordwood cabin she built herself and is completing an eco-friendly, passive solar heated, hybrid earthbag and cob house. She is nearing completion of a fourth book of poetry and is working on a memoir and a work of non-fiction concerning global climate change. She is a professor of poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
A "Mini-Review" of Judy Jordan's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz
There is a review of one of Judy Jordan’s books written by a customer on Amazon.com. The review begins: “Currently, I am enrolled in a poetry course with Ms. Jordan. Let this not be a bias in my review.” You really have to admire that kind of integrity in an Amazon review. It’s very “Honest Abe,” and living as I do in the Land of Lincoln, I must respectfully follow suit. Full disclosure: I am a second-year student in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Judy Jordan is my professor. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a conflict of interest in a poetry review, but let me just say that though she may often look at me with a facial expression that suggests she is imagining in her head at that very moment how she might bring about my violent demise, I am not afraid for my life. In seriousness, when it comes to poetry, we have an obligation to be honest and speak the truth about the words on the page, however we feel about the author, which I will do here.
The three poems for this week’s feature are each in some way about the apocalypse. The first time I met Judy Jordan, I actually thought it was the apocalypse. No, seriously. I had come to Carbondale for a few days as an aspiring MFA student, and got to sit in on Judy’s workshop. After class, she offered me a ride back to my hotel. I readily agreed, not knowing if there even was a cab to be called in Carbondale. Judy mentioned that she just needed to stop by her office for a minute. Not knowing how loosely she was using the word “minute,” I followed her upstairs to her office. Through her office window, I watched the sky go black. For the next hour, lightning and thunder erupted overhead. A near-horizontal rain was pounded the windows, blown by a savage wind that hacked off limbs and branches on trees across campus and ripped out power lines across town. The lights flickered on and off a few times, and a tornado siren strained to pierce through it all.
I should have known in that moment that Judy had written poems about the apocalypse. She didn’t blink at any of it. She just kept searching for the mysterious piece of paper she was looking for. The figure of speech “needle in a haystack,” really ought to be replaced with “sheet of paper in Judy Jordan’s office.” It doesn’t flow off the tongue quite the same way, but it’s just as apt. Judy’s office is overflowing with books and portfolios and manuscripts, and has that no-exaggeration-fire-hazard motif going on in a way I think we’ll all agree is endearing to English professors. Anyway, as I gingerly sidestepped down the office’s lone clear path, moving from one bookshelf to the next, I saw on the wall between the bookshelves two framed letters. I leaned in closer and read the praise being heaped upon Judy by none other than Adrienne Rich, particularly in regards to the 1999 Walt Whitman-award-winning Carolina Ghost Woods (LSU Press, 2000).
Embarrassingly, I didn’t own a copy, and hadn’t read the book-- facts I confessed to Judy as the storm raged outside. She casually found a copy somewhere in the depths of one of the bookshelves and handed it to me, telling me to read it on the train. I read all of it the next day on the ride to Chicago, including two of the poems we feature this week, “A Short Drop to Nothing,” and “At Winter’s Edge.” As I read, I tried to remember the exact words of praise in the letters from Rich, to whom the third poem from this week’s feature, “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl,” is dedicated. But having scanned them just once, I couldn’t remember anything particular. I imagined they probably say something about how vibrant with rhythm and music the language is, that the rhyme, slant rhyme, rhythmic patterns, dropped lines, and line breaks play off one another, and off section breaks, to keep these highly lyrical narrative poems churning forward with a relentless momentum between deep breaths. Or about the often elegiac quality, the rich and unusual metaphors and similes, and the vivid natural imagery that capture the imagination.
In “A Short Drop to Nothing,” we get both musicality and imagination. The poem’s narrative arc is a day spent on the water, waiting for something, told in lyric images evenly divided into two five-line stanzas. All of the lines are roughly the same number of syllables: the second stanza features one twelve-syllable line and one thirteen-syllable line, but the remaining eight lines of the poem are all ten or eleven syllables each. There is not a strict syllabic pattern at work throughout the entire poem, but the first stanza is largely anapestic. The number of stresses per line in the first stanza varies from four to five. In the second stanza, the poem picks up momentum due to an increased number of stressed syllables, with most lines featuring six stressed syllables. The second stanza features a more varied metrical pattern, from the perfect up-and-down of line six, to the more iambic lines seven and eight, before settling back into a mostly anapestic pattern again in the final two lines. The poem is rich with consonance: “Geese lift from the far hill in the last light,” and “water’s warp and wrest.” The lines end in a compellingly inexact slant rhyme: “lack,” “dock,” “wrest,” “sack,” “chaff,” “light,” “pond,” “wait,” “dung,” “land.” If there is one formal consistency that is uniform throughout the poem, it’s that every line ends in a stressed monosyllabic word, which is perhaps what ultimately powers the poem’s forward momentum. The poem’s virtues go beyond music, of course, and include figurative language, from the metaphor of “the indifferent sun, that seed-heavy sack,” to “the wind, smelling of leaf rot and dung,/ tugs the evening over this darkening land,” the poem’s starkly beautiful final image.
Like “A Short Drop to Nothing,” and many of the other poems in Carolina Ghost Woods, “At Winter’s Edge,” is also filled with natural imagery. Unlike “A Short Drop to Nothing,” which relies more heavily on meter, “At Winter’s Edge,” instead derives its pace from longer lines in more irregular stanzas, and also makes use of a number of dropped lines to subtly alter the momentum. The poem alternates long and short lines, beginning with a twenty-one syllable opening line that is the poem’s longest, and ending with a six-syllable line that is its shortest. In between, most lines are from eight to fourteen syllables. The most vivid images and some of the most musical language in the poem also occur in the aforementioned dropped lines: “the pleats and creases of the flood-sheared slope / are most severe,” and “bulbs of horseradish and sapling bitternut / reclaim the slime-slick dam…” This poem also features a slightly more philosophical tone which addresses time and the changing of the seasons: “Hard to imagine the creek without this luxury of destruction,” and “The year having rushed to waste—…” and “Each year it’s like this:…” all work together to set up the poem’s turn: “Does it matter if ice marks the season’s approach or wane?” The answer is haunting: “Grief enough cleaves this wrecked land with beauty. // The privet is doomed.” Though it may not end in the optimism of spring, the harsh, bleak beauty of winter is not lost on the poem, nor is the winter landscape’s ability to evoke memories of its warmer seasonal counterparts.
Memories are at the heart of the newest poem featured this week, “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl,” which covers more than a single day or single season. Indeed, it seems to tell the story a lifetime, from the speaker’s earliest childhood into adolescence and adulthood. The poem moves back and forth, from life with family in her childhood home around the time of the gas shortage of ‘73 to an adult life lived homeless in a half-collapsed greenhouse to the poem’s most contemporary reality, in which the speaker lives in a one-room cabin in the woods that is “off-the-grid,” where she listens on a short-wave radio to a story about a gas shortage in Iraq, presumably during or after the most recent Iraq war. Formally, the poem is written in multiple unnumbered sections of varying length, separated by long horizontal lines. The poem utilizes dropped lines throughout each section, and while some sections are only half a page, some are spread over several pages—and as the poem has yet to be published, I don’t mean the relatively short, wide-margined pages in a poetry collection. On standard letter-sized paper the poem is seven full pages long. While seven pages may sound like an interminably long time in a poem, particularly one with Whitman-esque long lines separated into numerous sections, the poem feels more like an instant than an eternity. Or more accurately: one instant after another in rapid succession. As in her earlier poems, this new work is rich with sound, with slant internal rhymes and alliteration layered throughout each section. It’s full of unexpected, descriptive metaphors and similes: “as the sky washed out like a bleached dish rag and the sun pressed down on us like a fever,” and “the helicopter, / going in for the night, / sputters in sulphur-smoke, blades slowed, then stopped, / and like some mythical beast shot from air, / sinks sideways through stained light to crash in the stubbled field.” The poem ranges in setting from the slaughterhouses and farmland and cotton mills of the speaker’s North Carolina childhood; to Jerusalem during the Crusades; to Vietnam as seen live on TV; to Iraq as heard on the radio; to race riots in the South; to World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb. In doing so, the poem intertwines the speaker’s own family life and personal experiences with the long arc of history. The poem, particularly in its latter half, makes use of extremely long sentences that are wild with energy, surging forward as they do from one image to the next, but giving the reader enough pause through punctuation and line breaks to meditate for a moment on the image or metaphor or simile or narrative detail contained within each phrase.
This perpetual motion reaches its peak in the final section, with the poem’s final sentence spanning thirty-six lines, and making repeated use of the phrase “the innocent dead,” toward the end. The innocent dead are the central theme linking each time and place in history to one another, and each section in the poem to one another, even in the sections where the phrase itself isn’t used. Were all of the historical events invoked not enough to cumulatively suggest the end of times, near the poem’s end the speaker makes room for the possibility that “the day promised me in so many Sunday school lessons / at last has come…” But the speaker fears that she will be
…left here, as if in limbo, al-A’raf, not damned,
yet unable to enter the garden of paradise with the innocent dead,
wind whispering their names, wind whispering earth,
the bloodied river, whispering earth boiling, earth this dark,
The poem is so wide-ranging in place and time, yet so specifically detailed in each image and setting, that we take the end of the poem’s prophetic, mystical language in stride. Though the author makes it seem effortless, poem has worked hard to earn these final lines, which are enormous in scope, and which implicate the speaker’s own experience and the broad strokes of human history as integral parts in a more eternal or mythological narrative of the planet.
Judy Jordan’s poems tell the story of the end of the world in lyrical moments that manage to avoid cliché. These poems continually surprise, both with the fresh musicality of their language, and with the unflinching gaze they cast upon their world. Though each of these poems envisions the end, or aspects of it, none of them gives in to despair, or hopelessness, and all of them are filled with a dark beauty. If the end of the world is going to be anything like what’s described in these poems, perhaps it won’t be a complete loss after all.