Newt Knight and the Free State of Movie Mania

There’s been a lot of excitement around Jones County and South Mississippi lately because Gary Ross of Hunger Games fame (just for a start) is gearing up to shoot a film about a local Civil War Era legend by the name of Newt Knight.

If you want to know more about Newt, Google is your friend, and I am in too much of a hurry right now to say much more. But I want to make a contribution to the movie mania anyway, so here’s a poem that I wrote about Newt Knight. It’s one of a series.

The Murderer

Your one job is to pull that trigger.

Make the barrel appear
as if from nowhere,
dark against darkness.

Aim. Crook your finger.
Say a prayer to your God.
In the bang of creation,
in the deafening crack
that brings death to life,
allow yourself to be swallowed
whole by the night.

The rest of the job is ours.

You will not be found.
You will not be brought
to justice on this night
by anything other than
the sheer luck or good
talent of failing
to leave a trail.

This will not stop us from naming you.
This will not stop us from casting you
in our own image:
Good and Evil,
the epitome of both,
the double nature of us all.

On the floor in a house
that will be haunted
from this night forward,
a Confederate officer lies dead,
the only clues the death itself,
and the broken window
from which it came.

Of you we sing.

You are one man,
containing the multitudes of us,
everything we love and hate
about the South,
everything we love and hate
about ourselves.

Did you do it?
Of course you did, if only
because we have told it
as gospel truth for so long.

Of course you did not, if only
because we have nothing more
than legend to place you at the scene.

You are the eternally unobserved.
You are both true and untrue
in equal portions, both there
and not there, both guilty and innocent,
both hero and villain.

You need nothing more than us
to make it so, nothing more than
our telling and retelling
of you as we see ourselves,
nothing more than
our insatiable hunger
to believe in one true version
of any legend ever handed down.

The Quiet Gene

The Weedy Life

(iPhone photo #58 in my 2012 365+1 project)

My resolution for today will have to be to write more. On that note, I’m going to share what I shared with my writing group this evening. I’m calling it a prose montage. It’s the same form I called flash memoir the last time I wrote one, though, so you can call it whatever you like. It’s a story. It’s a poem. It’s an essay.

The Quiet Gene

I.

The more you try to talk, the more I ignore you. Every human preference has the name of something sinister, and you will call me passive aggressive while I call you obnoxious. Because you are intense, and I am shy. Because you think I am doing nothing when I sit here thinking, and I think you are wasting time, talking so much when there is nothing to say.

You are a human trowel coming after my weedy parts. Go ahead then. Strike me here where I rest. I am not so weak that I will not pop up again from the roots, that I will not continue undeterred my slow winding around your bad nerves.

I have wondered for forty years what they threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, but I have not wondered why Bobbie Gentry does not want to tell me where she is.

It is easiest to kill the things we love best. The young roses need special care. The dandelions do not. We have loved Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse to their deaths, but Bobbie Gentry does not want our love. Bobbie Gentry is a blackberry vine sprouting up volunteer in a cotton field. Bobbie Gentry is quietly hidden and alive.

II.

No one talks to me when I put the earbuds in. No one respects your right to silence, but everyone respects your right to music. If you want a quiet day, put the earbuds in, and leave the iPod off.

III.

My great-grandmother writes a letter in which she describes her grandmother as a quiet woman. I read it to my mother who says, “She sounds like my granddaughter.” There is a gene for everything, and even hundreds of years ago, a woman with my mitochondrial DNA sat thinking about something else while the people around her swapped stories. If she was anything like her granddaughter, my great-great-great grandmother, she outlived everyone except the one child who wrote down, “She was kind to everyone, but she did not talk very much.”

IV.

I tell you I do not want to be at this party, and you say I should have said so, and I say I did say so. You say, you did not say it like you meant it. I think but do not say, I said it like I meant it. What I did not do was to say it like you would have said it if you meant it.

V.

My grandmother made biscuits before dawn every morning of her life. She set them out hot on the table just as others were crawling out of bed and walked back to the kitchen alone. We do not know if or when she ate.

I played “Ode to Billie Joe” in my grandmother’s house while she sat on the back porch shelling peas alone. I stood on the bed with a hairbrush for a microphone, and for an audience of no one, pretended to be Bobbie Gentry.

Meditation on the Death of the Ants

The ants make mounds of their dead
after I have flooded them out
with the water hose. I squat,
hunched over, wondering at them.
I am human here and no good
substitute for benevolence,
having chosen efficiency in my life
over life itself. The murderer in me
watches the wounded in them,
thinking of my friend who is
dead today from the flood tides
of his own lost hope, thinking
of the thousands who are dead
by drowning on the shores of an island.
What is the whole world to them
has gone under water with water
and more water threatening still.
I was told the rainbow means
the world will never go down
this way again, but this is
only true if you do not live
too close to the shore.
Some people, like my friend,
like these we mourn so today,
live out whole lives too close
to the shore. They cannot help it
if this is where they were born.
What substitutes for benevolence
for them? This is a question
I am not supposed to ask,
but so little remains off limits
when you still hold the hose
in your hand and so many drowned
begin to mound at your feet.

I tried today, my dear dead friend,
to make an origami of hope for you.
I am no more successful now
as I twist myself into an emotional
paper crane, doing nothing
more than asking.

I’ve got blurb

These are blurbs for my book of poetry (“Thin is the Kingdom”) to be released at some unknown date in the nearish future by Pinyon Press of Colorado.

From Mark Cox.

How best to describe this book? Imagine Breughel raised Baptist and painting Jackson, Mississippi. Picture Franny Glass in a Dixie Chicks t-shirt with a Pyrex casserole dish of creamed corn in one hand and Finnegans Wake in the other. Picture William Faulkner drinking Slim Fast and reading Robert Creeley under a carport collapsing beneath the weight of wisteria. Feel a searing mid-August Deep South sun paying due respect to a history of shadow. This book is original and just plain wonderful. Gerald’s poems have a gritty authority and depict a world wherein our suffering is assuaged by hard earned book smarts and stubborn, wry, compassionate humor.

From Angela Ball.

In Sharon Gerald’s wise and resilient poems, “Beauty swills about like /morning coffee. Sleek black cats yearn toward sparrows / forever out of grasp. Dogwoods come to visit,” and a rock formation resembles “Mother Mary reaching out to Jabba the Hut.” Asking “What is a lie but / a good intention / stumbling on its own / crooked toes?” Gerald knows that in our awkward lives, loss abides with humor, and foolishness with hard-won grace. These poems are friends I love knowing. I wish you the pleasure of their company.

I must say I am speechless. They’ve made this sound like a book I’d like to read.

The chicken got my supper

Your daughter is two and cooking an invisible casserole
in a pink plastic oven when disaster strikes.

“The chicken got my supper,” she yells,
running to you like the life of everything depends.

This chicken–her first imaginary playmate–is trouble.
It makes messes in her brother’s room,
loses her grandmother’s earrings, and spills anything
worth its salt in spilling across newly mopped floors.

She is two with eyes lit up in outrage–
“That chicken bit my toe,” she says.

You load dishes and tell her to work it out
with the chicken. “Be nice,” you say.
“Don’t tattle if you want the chicken
to be your friend.”

She is two and funny.
Already, you know how to get a laugh
out of this from your friends.

But inside, you too rage against
your own imagination.

Life is not easy or fair, and the casserole
does not always work out the way you want.

Go ahead. Blame the chicken that earlier
stood clucking and happy beside you.

You might as well. Whatever else happens,
supper is ruined, and you’ve got nothing better to do.

Bad Mood

My bad mood is a hummingbird gang
gone wild for sugar water.
It fights amongst itself, stomps air,
beats emptiness like hummingbirds
that think they are pit bulls
snarling for blood.

My bad mood is a plague of love bugs
blown in from a storm, doubled-up,
crawling into every crevice
that does not want it, that will not want
its residue of smushed bug
lingering for months to come.

My bad mood is a late crop of fall tomatoes
grown small and hard from drought and neglect.
Too much to ignore.
Too little to be worth stabbing open
with a dull kitchen knife.

Sharon Does Not Write Poetry

Once I sat in a fiction workshop with Gordon Weaver. I was not a fiction writer, but I was in the class, making whatever pretense I could muster up at the time. He picked up my story, read a couple of sentences from it, and said, “You wrote that, Gerald, and you call yourself a poet?”

I’ve repeated this to myself many times in the past couple of decades. Weaver is the kind of teacher who never really leaves you alone even if you haven’t seen him for 15 or 20 years. So often I write sentences unfit for a poet. All poets do to tell the truth, and when they do, they need a Gordon Weaver in their heads reminding them what’s what.

But I am not a poet. I only call myself a poet sometimes.

I write every day. I write something or anything. More anything than something. Or perhaps I write everything. Certainly, I’m not averse to trying my hand at fiction, journalism, academic prose, random ramblings, or anything else that holds my attention for a minute or two.

You are a writer when you are writing. That’s the definition taught to me in school, not by Gordon Weaver, but by people who did not mind making corny proclamations.

You are a poet then, I have determined, when you are writing poetry. I’m not above corny proclamations in the least.

I did not write a poem today. I did not write a poem yesterday. I doubt I will write a poem tomorrow. I am not a poet. I do not write poetry. Not this week.

Once a man who had three or four books of poetry published told me he had not written a poem for six months, and that he often went that long between poems. I wanted to kiss him. I don’t think I did, but the inscription he left in my copy of his book made me wonder if I at least expressed the sentiment out loud. He taught me how to give myself permission to go for long stretches without concerning myself with poetry. My poetry teachers took that permission away from me until I got out from under their care, but I still had it to give back to myself when I could.

I have a degree in poetry, but I’m not a poet. I’m not writing poetry right now.

I considered writing a poem today, but I didn’t have anything to say. I considered what I might put into a poem. I tallied up images and ideas the day had yielded. The best one was a butterfly that I watched for a time thinking I would take a picture of it until I realized it was dying not posing. That’s the kind of irony I might squander on a poem if it didn’t sound too much like Stevie Smith’s “not waving but drowning.”

Mainly I just thought my mental energy wasn’t there for poetry. I’m not one of those people who believes poetry requires inspiration either. We make our own inspiration, and writer’s block is just another way of saying lazy. But I’m okay with lazy today.

I want to retreat from the effort of words. I want to repot plants, clean out closets, read books, and take pictures. I want to putter around and let the strain of teaching too many people seep out of me.

That isn’t wasted time. It’s the kind of time that allows the image of a dying butterfly to settle into my consciousness, that lets an idea from one book take up residence with an idea from another, that gives conflicting feelings time to shake hands, back up, and start taking punches at each other all over again.

Last summer I spent a month with a group of teachers who repeated like a mantra “Sharon writes poetry” each time we shared our free writes and journal exercises. But it’s not true. I don’t write poetry. I’m not writing poetry now.

I can write any old sentence at all right here right now, and it will be okay. I give myself permission, the voice of Gordon Weaver that lives in my head notwithstanding. Today I do not call myself a poet.

The Problem with Poem-a-Days

I have nothing to post for Poetry Month today, and it looks like I will not scrape anything together.

Because I’ll be in meetings all day tomorrow and Saturday, don’t look for anything then. And next week? Special events on campus every day on top of end-of-semester grading. The prospects are not promising. I may quit the blog, let alone the poem-a-day endeavor. And what do I have to show on Day 8, having ostensibly made it this far? Sort of?

Nothing, that’s what. I haven’t written anything in eight days that I would proudly claim as my best work. I might revisit a line here and there. Other than that, I don’t hold out much hope.

Regardless, I’ll keep plugging away where I can, writing something even if it’s not my proudest. I love the energy of National Poetry Month. I love all the effort poured into reading and writing poetry. I love our poetry day at school. I want to rule Poetry Month and have it rule me. I just can’t.

It’s in April, you see, and April is the busiest time of year. I am burned out, stressed out, and strung out. I have nothing to give.

Maybe I should do my own poetry month in July when I’m not as stressed. I’m sure it would work out better for me. I’m sure I would write more than I’m writing now and feel better about it. I still wouldn’t go a whole month with a poem a day of work I want to keep and feel good about. Poetry doesn’t work that way. It needs time to percolate.

That’s the problem with poem-a-days. They assume poetry can be dashed off on demand.

Remember the Yeats poem about spending a whole afternoon devoted to writing one line? Poetry is more like that. It sets its own pace. Good poems require a certain amount of reflection time. They may even require some research. They certainly require more mental energy than, for example, writing this blog post.

All that aside, let me take a minute to talk about my garden. I put some tomato and pepper plants in my raised beds this week. They don’t have any tomatoes or peppers on them yet. Check back with me in June, and we’ll see where we stand then.

My April poems are not poems yet. But I’m doing what I can here and there to get them started. Check with me in June to see how they’re doing.

Day 7: National Poetry Month

IMG_1032

At the moody end of hectic and too much coffee, I am surprised to notice…

I.

how alone it feels to sit at the breakfast table of the over-committed. I am a stack of pancakes piled too high and higher, so high as to lean precariously toward nothing much more than a fall into syrup, the buttery struggle to stand and tower up again. You are right to keep your distance. You are right to slice your own days up neatly, with a knife and fork, one layer at a time. Even the griddle is tired of this.

II.

that the strawberry atop my afternoon yogurt does not much care, remains indifferent to the frenzy with which I eat, to the the wind that threatens to blow away its receipt, even to the ink stain on the finger accidentally brushing against it. The strawberry joins not the struggle. Carry on with or without it at will.

III.

that an avocado and guilt mashed up together at the end of the day look as much like guacamole as the avocado alone.

***this is my journal entry in response to today’s Journally prompt.