A cellar roof,rose-thatched, rose-ridden,
and steeped in light, where a child,
after climbing a slope of earth, stands peering out,
knowing that all she sees belongs to her: sky,
road, smokehouse, blackberried thickets, sycamore,
wild strawberries, and mud dauber.
A brown-legged girl stands in the toe-widened spaces
among white petals, a heron beside unmoving waters,
and at her feet, pooled over a cellar’s roof to stun
the eye: white roses, white roses, white roses.
A child measuring—with outstretched fingers—
blossoms wide as egg-sopped biscuits, as dinner plates
or doilies. Yet she never snaps a rose from its dark stem,
or presses a petal’s cup against her teeth, or tosses—
for the sake of spill—confetti-petals over brown limbs.
She never pins a rose behind her ear, singing
Mama may have, Papa may have. . . .
White roses awash over a cellar’s roof quell
a violent heart and soothe its avarice. Undaunted
by thorn, by blinding whiteness, she stands
surrounded, a small fish slipping through a thorny net,
claiming them: These too are mine.
These too she owned. Rosaceae setigera and the sun’s rose
with its thorns of light, and the heart’s rose bowered
in the rib’s arbor, and roses of breath that unfurled
from her small chest. A splendor of roses
above an empty root cellar and a child standing aflame,
as if the cellar’s dust and dark, its abandoned
shadows, mattered not at all.
She sits spread-
legged in a straight-backed chair,
showering beans into a wash of well water,
a woman snapping string beans beneath a willow oak,
away from summer heat, with shadows
and shells of light scattered at her feet.
In unbroken rhythm, she pitches
the worm-gnawed and rotty, rinses the sand,
and breaks the long-fingered pods,
letting the tender knuckles knock
and tumble into the dinted pan, Pah. Pah.
Pah. Unseen, a child watches, clutching
a gray cloth purse, filled with sand
and pine needles, with cockscomb ruffs
and a black-blue beetle pried loose
from pitchy bark, a winged mystery,
big-eyed and bright, and no bigger
than her thumb. Dead, but it doesn't matter.
She will keep it. The child watches
and listens to the descant of beans brattled
into a metal pan. The woman, listening too,
thinks how quickly things break, how sharp
the last note of falling. But the child thinks only
of the music: beans spilled, beans snapped,
and beans rumbled into the splash
of a kitchen pan. The child considers, lifting
in her small fist the broken beans, the woman,
the well water, and the falling notes, toppling
them into the maw of her gray purse—ka-click.
Vernon, Alabama, 1962
With backs bent, the daughters
of Vernon clean the graves of their dead,
casting aside the wind-scattered litter
and long necklaces of ants, leaving instead
foil-swaddled tins of plastic posies, phlox,
cockscomb, and biscuit-wide roses.
They move unspeaking between
the grassy plats, through doilies
of shade and sun, to the carved serifs
of familiar names, the lives
they knew: that one killed by fire,
the one whose heart grew watery as a melon,
there and there the others lost to cancer.
They tarry beside particular deaths,
their sorrow both daybook and parable:
how afterwards they too wanted to die
and couldn't stop cryin'. No, couldn't stop
cryin'. The daughters of Vernon step
carefully, as they were taught.
Hush. Do not disturb these dead ones.
Let them sleep. Free of burden.
Let them sleep. At rest beneath that yella clay.
Let them sleep, Lord, let them sleep.
But the dead hear anyway and, listening
to those muffled feet, the rub of work-worn
hands against a gravestone's edge, the whis,
whis of a sweeping whisk, they stare out
of dead spaces at the shapes above and see
the industry of shadows. They watch
for a moment, incurious, and then, closing
dead eyes, return to solitude's unmoving dust.
But the honeysuckle remains, having planted itself,
feral and heavy-scented, left by grief’s gleaning
to fill the silence and draw from passing bees
a music that any might hear who still listen.