Not by severance but by division. Not propagation stalk
by stalk, but the way the shaggy ball of earth, knocked loose, falls
of its own volition, crumbling, into your hands. This she taught,
and the cleaning and scrubbing of pots – breaking the old ones
into crocks, for lining the bottoms. When and how to pinch back,
where to dig the best earth, how long to bake it in the oven.
Out of such deliberation, sure growth. Nothing forced, not even
planned, only the weekly watering "to the roots," the careful,
patient observation. This is a plant that likes to be crowded,
that sends up its shoots, that can wait years for the right time
to be divided. This one's a creeper, a wanderer, that will not stay
where it is placed. Not once did she say "Remember what I do."
It was all necessity, for the plant's own good, that it might thrive.
I offer up these lines to her ghost: these green shoots growing.
When your grandmother dies
or your friend's grandmother
or anybody's grandmother –
when they come back from the funeral
there is all this food brought in
by neighbors and people who knew her;
and all the relatives and in-laws
who really don't want the food
stand around and eat it anyway.
There is no will. She had no money.
The property was deeded over years ago,
she lived on Social Security, with help
from her children. She had already
promised her drop-leaf walnut table
to a grand-niece, her blue willowware
to a second cousin once-removed who
still looked in on her now and then
on her way to town. Everybody else
would get something. It was all settled
And while they are standing
around in the kitchen, uncomfortable
in their high heels and dark suits,
eating slices of pie and cake, talking
about who gets what, they all agree
on one thing— that nobody wants
that old orchid cactus, the one
she grew for fourteen years
on pure rainwater and partial shade
in a cold, uninsulated room
on the side porch – the porch
where there used to be racks
of kettles and metal washtubs
before they all chipped in
and bought her a washer and dryer.
No one could want that old plant,
they decide, it is too heavy, too
ugly, no one could even pick it up
without breaking something off.
Besides, it doesn't seem friendly.
With its long, leathery leaves
it looks like a basket of figs
waiting to be carried to Cleopatra.
Finally they go home. The house
is put up for sale. The rooms are stripped,
newspapers pile up on the front step,
kids break windows at Halloween.
In the cemetery the cut flowers
fall away from the wire racks;
only the plastic-petaled endure –
chrome-yellow and robin's-egg blue.
The cactus stays on the side porch
where no one ever goes. Rainwater
blows through the broken panes,
the sun comes up each morning.
Left alone, starved, it finally blooms,
offering up minute yellow flowers
in unbelievable profusion.
A few days later, the realtor manages
to wrestle the plant into the alley.
I know you would like to believe
that someone else comes along –
some young person, some believer,
who decides to take it home. That
is the way these stories usually end.
But this is not a story, it is a poem,
in which loose ends do not necessarily
tie up, nor do the lost and abandoned
invariably find their way. Go back to
that morning when it first flowered,
there in the stillness of the porch,
and the sunlight. The tiny blossoms
opening, brightening that empty space.
Eating the Bones
Start out by remembering maybe somebody you knew
in college who always ate the whole apple – core, seeds,
and all. Nothing left but the stem, to twirl on your tongue.
Next, there is this professor whom you offer to take to lunch
and he orders fried chicken, and while the two of you are talking,
you notice he is eating the bones too. They're simply disappearing.
He's chewing them up. Slowly. Carefully. Thoughtfully. "Tribal,"
he says, noticing you noticing. "A lot of cultures eat chicken bones.
They're not all that tough. And besides, they're good for you."
You're amazed. It would be like eating a poem – not simply
skimming the lines to get a general impression, but concentrating
on each word, each image, crunching them down to the last splinter.
But people don't read poems that way these days, it is all fast food,
all e-mail, everything done on the run. "Ask your girlfriend,"
he says, crunching away. "Didn't she grow up on a farm?" Okay,
so you ask her. "Nobody would eat those kinds of chickens," she says.
"Their egg-whites would be like Elmer's glue. Yolks from chickens
that scratch are bright yellow. They stand up in the mixing bowl."
To scratch means to roam free in the barnyard, eating whatever
comes along – bugs, beetles, worms. Peck at an apple-core
for a while, maybe swallow the seeds. "Chickens have gizzards,"
she explains. "When you cut open a free-range chicken, the gizzard
can have strange things in it." "Like what?" you ask. "Like,
you really don't want to know," she says. "No, really, tell me."
"Bits of glass," she replies. "Blue rocks. Metal shavings."
"She was in one of my classes," the prof says, reaching out
for another piece of chicken – it looks like the other thigh –
"a couple of years ago, before you met her. Did you realize
she can tie a knot in a maraschino cherry-stem without taking it
out of her mouth?" He bites down on something hard, and grins.
Eating the Bones was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2007.
They are minor keys, a terra cotta music
hidden at the bottom of the clay flowerpots.
While the plants sing – geraniums, pansies –
the crocks huddle together in the darkness.
They hold up the earth and the myriad roots.
Water seeps down, but they are not thirsty.
They have grown used to waiting. Fired clay
is impervious, it lasts for ten thousand years.
When I knock a dead plant out of its pot
the crocks clatter and fall from the bole.
I save them, as my grandmother saved them.
I wash them off, I use them again. I mix in
pieces of all the other pots recently broken –
the nerve white of coffee cups, the dark willow
of broken plates, the blue mixing-bowl shards.
Kept in darkness at the bottom of each pot,
they are notes played by an instrument
never to be heard again. They are secrets
no one can know, toenails painted shades
of maroon or purple, that take forever to dry.
|Jared Carter's poems and stories have appeared online in Astropoetica, Bohème Magazine, Eclectica, Melic Review, The New
Formalist, Plum Ruby Review, The Scream Online, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His fourth collection of poetry,
Cross this Bridge at a Walk, is available from Wind Publications in Kentucky.
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