Slim Joins Up
He’ll tell Papa first,
how he climbed the steps above the grocery
to Armory Hall where this time
there was no dancing, no rummy, no liquor
brought in by county boys or the Reeves brothers
and nobody’s sisters or cousins from Greensboro
in tight dresses with bobbed hair—
though their scent remained where groups
of boys like him gathered,
filling out papers, standing against height lines,
raising palms for oaths, making boasts
they swore they’d keep even if bullets
scraped their heads and their skin bloodied
but not with the blackberry juice of summer.
He’ll tell Papa what Papa knows—
the Jerries in their brown uniforms,
children dying, evil rising up fast
as new corn. Anyway, Papa,
you know I’m not cut out for farming.
Papa won’t cry like Mama will,
or grip his arm and turn her face away
He’ll laugh and tell her chances are
they won’t get called up anyway.
All we’ll do is lay around and whine
for biscuits and your red eye gravy.
Anyway, what’s done is done,
he’ll tell them both.
He won’t sleep that night,
will lie awake on the front porch cot,
watching clouds across a restless sky
as crickets murmur from the grass,
a lullaby of sorts, Mama would say.
Southern Railway to Camp Glenn
He watches what passes by—a cow farm,
blackberries ripe in the briars, trees losing leaves,
trumpet vines clinging to summer, houses
with people who wave from porches, streets
where mothers are walking their babies
or hauling sacks of groceries. High Point.
Greensboro. Burlington. Durham. Headed east
where they say the earth is all sand, water is salty,
and the ocean stretches green and white
to the edge of the sky. Most these boys
he grew up with—Jack, Ernest, Walter, Hal.
Sat beside in school, hunted with, stole
their daddies’ whiskey, got whipped
by their mamas’ switches. Now row after row
in matching uniforms, nothing but a rucksack
with their name inked on, nothing but bragging
about things that don’t matter now, if they
ever did. At home, his brothers and sisters
are probably eating corn bread and chicken pie.
He’ll write to them about fields of peanuts
that run for miles, the ice-cold sea, and I’m fine,
I’m good, all the boys excited, can’t wait to get
over there and end this thing. Slowing down
to cross a road, almost in Raleigh, somebody says.
The field out there is brown with harvested wheat,
and he watches a white mutt
skirt around the stubs, digging for something,
snake or rabbit, that burrows underground.
After Sleeping in a Field Outside Paris
He yawns at the small annoyance
on his arm—leggy mosquito that settles,
flits, settles. Above him, linen-green
leaves of an oak and buttons of acorns
unthreading from its limbs. White fence.
A trumpet vine. Butterflies
the color of pumpkins, plum and yellow-red.
If he had a jar he’d scoop crawdads
from creek water tracing the meadow.
Crisp autumn air says a perfect day
for hunting—turkey, duck, deer, squirrel.
He’d been dreaming himself back home
at the fair with a girl and his old dog Buck
that died last summer. For a split second
or more that’s where he thinks he is,
behind the pageant stand—whatever her name
was—her lips and his. He jerks, slaps his arm,
the mosquito falls. Then he remembers the metal
helmet around his head, boots heavy
as stones, and, looking up, is blinded by a fiery
burst that is not sun.
Barbara Presnell’s poetry collection, Piece Work (CSU Poetry Center), won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. In 2009-10, an adaptation by the Touring Theatre of North Carolina was performed in community colleges throughout North Carolina. Her work also appears in three award-winning chapbooks, and in The Southern Review, Cimarron Review, Laurel Review, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
Q: Discuss the sources and inspirations for this new body of work, which you mentioned was centered on Southerners at war.
A. My paternal grandfather was born into a Quaker family in Randolph County in 1861. “Slim” in these poems is his oldest son, who fought with the famed Company K in World War I. In my current writing, based on family documents, census records, and stories passed from children to grandchildren, I am attempting to recreate the time and place of this family who sent five sons to two world wars. It’s fascinating work that I realize tells not only my family’s story but also the story of many rural North Carolinians, Southerners, and Americans who have rooted to a particular place only to find themselves suddenly far, far from anything familiar. My exploration of their lives teaches me not only who I am and where I’m from but also grounds me in this time long before I was born.
Q: Do you have a poet outside the British/American canon who has been an inspiration or influence on your work? In what ways?
A. My writing and my interest is so inherently Southern American that my immediate answer is no. But when I ponder this question more deeply, I realize that there are novelists—not poets—who have greatly enriched my reading life and encouraged my narrative bent. Among those are, of course, the Russian writers—Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, master storytellers—but also South African writer Nadine Gordimer, whose apartheid writings are engrossing epics of human frailty and desire. Most recently I’ve been captivated by French writer Irène Némirovsky‘s Suite Française, set in Paris during the months following the German invasion in 1940, a must-read for anyone interested in authentic work from that period in our world history.
Q: Trumpet vine and blackberries – we’re deep into summer with these natural elements! What place do these hold in your life and memory?
A. Trumpet vines, honeysuckle, blackberries, scuppernongs, muscadines, lightning bugs, June bugs, yellow jackets—yes, they all define summer in the South! They are also elements of nature with which we have an intimate relationship: we eat them, we smell them, we catch them in our hands and are bitten or stung by them. We intrude on their spaces and they likewise intrude on ours. We share the same space and are equal—I would say—inhabitants of that space. For me, these things individually and collectively represent my childhood summers, spent largely outdoors. In writing about place, which I usually do, reclaiming the small, ordinary and sensual detail is the surest way to bring my readers right to the spot where I want my story to begin. Plus, I still love each one of these critters and vines and invite them all into my raggedy yard.