It’s hard to get a globose
Berry into a Perdue Roaster’s cavity.
Once you do it and the little white plastic thermometer
Pops up to signal Done−the light of the juicy pulse snaps on
As if exiting Dark Wood.
Immediately my taste buds warm up.
I love the tough rind enclosed in the red.
Like my hair, the pigment’s tawny.
I am being candid: preserve the peel.
Conserve candied oranges.
I want to take that Orange Blossom Special to Orlando.
I yearn to smell white blossoms, fragrant as a bride’s wreath.
I want to prepare an Orangery
And learn how to extract the scent from the orange-flavor.
I want to feel the thrill again of getting up before light on Christmas
And creep to the worksock (heel looks like an orang-outang’s rear)
Filled in a flounce hanging with apples, raisins, nuts, oranges.
I want the day light enough to write,
For Memory to flesh out in nettings of air
Where Being Here’s Being There’s precedence.
I want to gather up tunes into the pleasure
Taste and Smell survive up in the hen’s cave,
The basil leaves simmering something
The stove-eyes cannot contain,
The oven set at 350 for two hours,
That cold bird, hot, the white skin, brown,
My non-cook’s fabrications subtle and resilient as a Hallmark message,
My mother waiting at the Garden Gate,
Her hatchet rusty.
I feel her hand in mine, dreaming of our years.
Sometimes I go out to the backhouse
And see the little axe-marks on the hand-hewed sill
Where she’d place a pullet’s neck
And make one whack
While the chicken went round and round among the jimson.
She would not waste an orange’s taste.
She went her own way, the flavor a trace of her particular scent−
A substance her senses−co-operative, indefinable, instinctive, piquant−
Motion the favor dancing
Nicely flavors spread at Sunday dinner.
Sparks guide the way: the range’s slab of smells
Blow air over sand in my shoes like wheels
Rolling out from Carolina.
Mama’s life’s rife with garnishes.
Yet I don’t recall Rosemary or Thyme−
Maybe one Rosemary−tall and wise−
Certainly The Virgin out of the bush
Echoing fragrances agreeable as leaves
Perfuming and cooking a medicine beautifully
Tasty, decorative, divine.
Rosebud Salve: yes.
I’ve had Roseola−came with Measles.
I don’t want to go through that again.
Consider Sage in sausage−hogkillings.
I’d rare right up from the table and yodel
What are we living for if not for seasoning?
Time marks my mother’s call−
Go to the Store, please, Shub, for me a Lemon.
That Memory scents Pleasure’s squeezes for seasonings.
I return to the pecan tree again,
To the woodpecker-pocked bark and the gauzy worm-sack aplay,
My mind lost next to the orchard oriole’s nest,
The pending yellow young in glory to turn the male so black and chestnut
As to show the sun smoking far−far away a thing, fair,
Some feathers perching display the soul spangles in singing
I can hear clearly outlining three birds−large−
Maybe red-tailed hawks, certainly not eagles over Paul’s Hill−
It’s famous for sparrows and sassafras trees.
A squirrel’s at Susan’s red schoolhouse feeder.
A rat snake’s waiting for the martins to hatch.
The buzzard eyes the rabbit on the slope.
Down the hill at Rehobeth Church a picnic-table’s heavy−
Stew beef, steaks, chicken, barbecue
And one of those big-old-out-of-this-world pecan cakes:
1 cup raisins
½ cup bourbon
1 cup butter or margarine (softened)
2 ¼ cups sugar
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups coarsely-chopped pecans
That’s the first part, for The Thing’s never free: in the fall when brown leaves call
We’ll catch a glimpse of a jay picking an acorn from its cup.
I’ll get out the hammer and stroll to Greatgreatgrandpap George’s anvil.
It must be over 150 years old, for Pap George died in 1886
After he sold July, the Slave Girl in 1850 for $413.25.
To say no one can own anything’s a cliché.
Not even what we eat stays with us long.
So the names we are and the names we give to things and to each other
Do not last outside appearances.
I place a black walnut on the anvil and hit with hammer−hard.
The flavor’s already in my eyes.
I know, for I was that boy who cracked them for Mama Maytle.
I am the one who put the sheet under the tall pecan there at the Smith Tobacco Curing Barn
And brush-raised my “bream pole”−oh so long a reed for fishing−
I could see the planets moonlighting over the sheet
With nuts scattering brown-crash-thrashing on white−
Just an outdoor game to me, born at home, in the country,
Too far from the city of gymnasiums, tennis courts, ball parks, and pizza!
Together thence the butterfly leaves the sack of worms in the cherry on the edge.
April’s showers wash the pollen away
And leave me crying just about, my eyes running over,
After all−it’s not you I’m looking for−
I’m looking for my mind.
That recipe for Pecan Cake and the Praline Glaze (second part of instructions)
Maytle wrote on the back of a blank receipt for The Smithfield Herald.
Now for that yummy epicurean glaze:
½ cup finely-packed brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup whipping cream
½ cup pecan-halves
This pecan cake is, well, call it Allrecipes because it will grow wonder on your tongue.
Why the receipt Mama Maytle wrote down the words on has turned over the decades into her name and mine. She served as solicitor for thirty-five years. I got the job for her. I told a teacher at Cleveland High (Mrs. Diggs) about “my mother,” how she would be good at getting subscriptions because she was a good talker and because she was nice to people. I told
Mrs. Diggs I wanted to find a job for my mother−outside the home−as a Mother’s Day present.
Mrs. Diggs told her husband−Henry−who worked in the newspaper’s office and he put my mother’s name in for a job at The Herald.
Maytle Samantha could have gotten this recipe from one of her customers, as she rode about the countryside in her Century Buick, finally a car, she said, she could see out of the windshield of and over the steering wheel, plus, she said−the Century had this little button on the side of the driver’s seat−“I could reach the pedals with no problem. I felt like I was helping people−and ourselves too.”
That’s what she said−standing apron-erect in front of her stove−making that Pecan Cake with the Praline Glaze. Watching her work and cook made me feel better than a mayfly fighting to cling to a kitchen doorscreen.
“Orange,” “Parsley” and “Pecan Cake” come from an unpublished manuscript called Shub’s Cooking. Shelby Stephenson’s Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge, and the 2009 Oscar Arnold Young Award, presented by the Poetry Council of North Carolina, Jared Carter, judge.
Q: Oranges have become a regular inhabitant of our produce aisles, but once they were treasured, anticipated inhabitants of Christmas stockings. What’s still special about an orange?
A: The memory of seeing one or two in my sock on Christmas morning. Every time I buy one from the bin at Food Lion I see “another” orange, that one bulging from a work-sock on a nail over the hearth in the plankhouse I was born in. I don’t associate the orange with any religious myth or ritual. Perhaps its color, shape, wholeness—I don’t know—is childhood. I hope it never goes away.
Q: You know the non-human inhabitants of your place so intimately, whether rat snake or buzzard, and how your lives intertwine. Would you call yourself a nature poet, and why or why not?
A: I don’t know what I am. I see what I see. And I am surprised. I know the rat snake has some sensor in its head or somewhere, something, which leads it to the barely feathered baby martins in a gourd high over the pasture. A rat snake (we called it a “chicken” snake when I was a boy) can climb air! A pole’s no detriment to its scales.
The buzzard? My main image is a bunch of whirling buzzards in the pasture, hovering over our hogs dying from cholera.
I wonder if I can ever get rid of those pictures. Linda and I live here at the homeplace. And I can close my eyes and see IT all again, another time, another place, though this very same spot now mixes farmland and housing developments. Buzzards pitch on Sanders Road for a run-over squirrel or possum or snake. No hogs in the pasture anymore. The small farm’s a thing of yesteryear. Have to go to the Fair to see how we lived, except I can see it in my mind.
There is a show going on all the time in nature. And we are part of that picture. Yesterday a deer was standing tall, neck aslant toward the sky, as if it were listening for a hunter (deer season’s about to start), its stance solid in our driveway. Our Norwich terrier, Cricket, took out after the deer, running down the lane, almost up to that deer, close enough to kiss its nose! The deer took off for the neck of woods there that separates properties.
I grew up with guns. Hunting. Fishing. All that. We ate what we caught and killed. Now to even type GUNS sounds funny or strange. Hype has won out over the certain reality I knew. I feed the birds now. I love the bluebirds and enjoy raising them. I notice too that the doves fly higher and faster now that dove-season is in. All these animal instincts live in us somehow. Somewhere at the core of our being there is a natural motion which drives us on.
Q: “No one can own anything,” you write, yet we do claim things, at least for a while. What would you stake your claim to?
A: To wake up awake in the morning. That’s better than a surprise. I will never get over what it is like to be part of creation, to belong to something bigger than we are and to believe (it or not) that the imagination, whatever it is—and memory—might salvage our lives and make us live on. I hope so.