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Ora names her children (before they are born)
unafraid of the shadow that glides up the mountain
approaching the nest. She names them the too-close sound
of a child’s whisper inside her ear. She names them buds
on splintery sycamore limbs and the buds’ curled leaves.
She names them after river clay and lightning shapes,
after songs she hears from the bucket dropped into the well.
She names them turnip and buckeye and leather and bird-feather
hat and tulip and the yellow color of rooms lit by flame.
She names them loneliness that can be rocked to sleep,
rooms haunted by dust that crawls in between the floorboards,
a thunderstorm of starlings crowding out the light. She names
the fingernails, the knees, pale eyelashes, tiny shoes,
caterpillar inching along the branch hung over the roof.
And when her upturned hands pile up with names, she pours
them onto every pinecone fallen empty of seed split through
the staves, every fur tuft stuck to bark, every quill hollow
poked through the pillow. She plants them until they return
stitched to the ridgeline bones. They tell her not to name them.
Remember that corn-spoiled rooster, his thornspurs.
Remember how you loved to hear that crowing. And the night
you died that rooster crowed all night long. He did not
stop. All night long. Remember how you sat on the edge of our yard
crowing. You crowed about how there is a rooster in each of us strutting
on the graves we carry until we can lay them down on hillsides
like crooked teeth. It enters us before we are born and hides as arms
in our sleeves, tiny hairs on our ankles. Listen to me now. I see now
how sleep is the skin of your last harvest, your chest a shifting field.
Each corn stump a forest of bird legs stretching beneath the ground
into that root-laced dark. Each of us carries the grave, the field, the flame
of a rooster crowing on walnut logs in the rafter brace. When you hold
the note of a rooster in your throat, what you hold is no longer a bird.
It is the night we create in the clutch of our hands, crouched in our feathers.
Mother has been writing to him for two weeks since the fire and rockfall.
She says she has seen him. She says we cannot know for sure
until we lay his ghost by with four nails sunk into the corners
of his grave. She says she hears the rattle of his pick and axe
slung over his shoulder in his leather pack. She says we have
to keep writing him or he won’t know he can come home. I see
Sweet Lily’s shadow follow behind mother at night when she finishes writing.
She follows behind her and blows out the lamplight. The oily smoke
slides behind them. Darkness fills her scribbled page.
Mother thinks he is wrapped inside a crow that eats our corn.
Sweet Lily told us he lives down the well. Sometimes I think
he is out there in the woods with the wild children, lost
to a river or summoned by music or calling to them to gather them
home for mother, like he used to gather chickweed and teaberry.
But I know better. And I know he will return each day and empty
mother’s hand of his hand. He will scratch their names into the lightning-struck snag.
The next morning, she will ask me for paper. I will hand her a sack.
She will not make a fire. She will not make a biscuit. She will not
remember the children that tear the air with laughter beyond the trees.
She will write him another letter, asking him to tell her stories
of witches wearing catskins and filling travelers’ ears with lead,
while each of her children slip through her fingers like stitches.
We lose count of which of us are dead or living, which ones were born,
which ones return to blow out the flames as they are born each night.
I found you today I thought
you were in the well but now I know you are not
I heard you in the limestone trying to come
out trying to get your body out of the place
you placed it I touched the dipped part
of the cliff where you fell asleep and your body
piece by piece went into the stone I heard
you in there like gravel pops under tires
trying to find a crack I will tell momma how
you lay down one day by this stream
against the cliff face and how each day the rock
opened a hole further and further until you became
part of the rock and how you live there now
she will be glad to know you were swallowed whole
-from Stonelight, Airlie Press 2018.
PROMPT: Let's weird it up a bit ala Sarah McCartt-Jackson. In "Ora names her children (before they are born)" McCartt-Jackson imagines the lives of her subject's children yet to be born via eerie, often-puzzling yet arresting imagery and metaphor. What do you dream of that is not yet manifest? Do you dream of children or grandchildren? A home you have not yet bought or built? An elusive success? Life on other worlds?
Whatever it is you often find yourself dreaming of, write a poem in which you put a name to (and explore) those dreams. Compose the poem through the perspective of anything but your immediate self--a friend, an animal, an inanimate object, an imagined version of yourself had you been born to different parents...anything but you.
BIO: Kentucky poet, naturalist, and folklorist SARAH MCCARTT-JACKSON has spent decades developing her craft, dedicating her art to exploring the natural and cultural world that encompasses all who share in planet life. Her poetry inspires others to connect, reflect, meditate, and act for the future of our ecosystems of all sizes: valley, prairie, forest, fern. Her poetry interprets scapes (landscape, homescape, culturescape) in both traditional and contemporary ways, exploring biological and cultural diversity, cultural history as embodied in tangible and intangible resources, and profound experience rooted in pleasure, sanctuary, and wilderness. In recognition of artistic excellence, Sarah McCartt-Jackson is the recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency, which is supported by state tax dollars and federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. She also served as an artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for its 2014-2015 season. Her poetry book Stonelight, winner of the 2017 Airlie Prize, is forthcoming from Airlie Press (Oregon). Her poetry chapbooks include Calf Canyon (forthcoming from Brain Mill Press), Vein of Stone (Porkbelly Press, 2014), and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River (Casey Shay Press, 2015). She is owner and founder of Stonelight Studio, home of Apple Cider Vinegar Press.