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13
Issue 13, October-December 2011
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Crucible

i.

“Tell us a story,” the children ask,
and the parents, although they know
it’s a delaying tactic, always agree. 
Listen, they say, once upon a time
there were girls and boys like you,
scared and resourceful, disobedient
and loved, and there were parents,
like us, trying to keep them safe
and warm and fed, but they failed
so the children had to leave to fight
monsters and giants, witches and wolves,
and when they came back home
sometimes they found their parents
had died, but not you, you never will.


ii.

Yes, there is evil
in the world, some
directed at you
and you can do
nothing to avoid it.
Beware of strangers.
Don’t judge by appearances.
None of these will help.
Evil will do what evil does,
striking you down
even when you don’t
bite into the apple,
and if you’re lucky,
you survive, sometimes
unconscious, sometimes
in a tower (after all
there are  so many ways
to be locked up)
but still alive, if not
warm, at least waiting.


iii.

You prefer beauty
to the point of wanting
someone comatose
instead of the village girl
who dances according
to her own desires

because you believe
you will be the one
to wake her, the one
to make her move,
your vivifying kiss,
your magical presence.

This is the mirror
of the tale.  Stop
looking at her,
imagining the feel
of that skin, and listen.


iv

Forget they’re animals.
Forget the easy jokes
about property crimes.
Don’t stop at slogans:
“Avoid extremes” or
“Find the middle way.”
Consider only the bare
element.  A woman,
a blonde stranger,
eats and sits and sleeps
in the bed you’ve shared
your most intimate moments.
Call her intruder
or mistress.
Call her daughter in law
or doubt.
Call her longing
or desire.
But she will come
and afterwards
nowhere will be
just right again.


v.

When you get home
after stealing and killing
to feed your family,
you’ll take an ax
to memory,
hacking down
the evidence
and burning
the green stalks;
the smoke will be
seen for miles
ensuring an audience
for you to recount
what happened
and what happened
becomes the tale
you tell.


vi.

Ignore the housing materials;
pay attention to the statistics.
Whatever gets built
brute force knocks down
two out of three times.

This is enough
to keep yourself fed
and something to remember
when you lock the door
before going to bed.


vii.

Blood, puberty,
sex, violence,
it may be these
sometimes, but always
the family dies.
No matter what
we do or have
in the basket,
no matter who
happens to pass by
at the last minute.
Blame the wolves,
among us, famine,
viruses, poor vision,
or tell the story
so the mother
of your mother
survives this
particular ending
but we all know
where each path ends.
Burn everything
away; this remains
the bone of the story
on which we choke.




Telling Time

A tale, like a rock,
over the years,
becomes smooth
from constant rubbing;
edges and corners abrade
until it seems no more
than a glossy ornament,
but hold it to your ear,
you can still hear
the ticking within.

Whatever gets polished
away, the violence
we do to one another
and ourselves – the cutting,
off of toes to try to fit
into a slipper, the dancing
to death in red hot shoes,
the pulling out of tongues –
this remains:  the clock
will strike midnight,
the crocodile is nearing,
the last petal falls.
Hurry, each story says,
you don’t have much time.





Joe Mills teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he holds the endowed chair for the Susan Burress Wall Professorship for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities. He also is the poet-in residence at Salem College.

Q&A

Q: How do fairy tales prepare children to understand their world–and their parents?
A: The crime writer Jim Thompson said that there were dozens of plots, but “there is only one story. Things are not what they seem.”  Every fairy tale deals with this, and readers learn about the world’s complexities. (This, by the way, is also why I think Disney often gets the tales wrong. In Disney films, you can judge by appearances. Scar is clearly evil; he has a scar. The step-sisters are “ugly” inside and out.) Dealing with these complexities requires resilience, resourcefulness, and the recognition that there is much outside of your control. It’s good for children and for parents to understand this.

Q: What is a fairy tale that you won’t read to your children, and why?
A: I’ve kept them away from Bluebeard although I know they’ll get to him eventually.  It’s less the tale than the telling that I’m careful about. Fairy tales deal with identity, so issues of race, gender, class, etc. are inevitably involved. Issues involved with adoption also come into play a great deal.

Q: If you found yourself lost in an unknown forest, what strategies would you use to save yourself/be saved/win the day?
A: Be careful who you talk to–no matter what they look like–and what you say to them. Again and again, fairy tales suggest a key strategy is to know when to keep your mouth shut. And be nice to the birds; they usually can help.

Poetry from Joe Mills
followed by Q&A
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