Poetry Chapbook by JC Reilly: Nine New Poems

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  • August 20, 2018

 

The Three Hour Siege on the Caddo Parish Jail

Shreveport, Louisiana, May 12, 1914

 

A thousand men had battered

steel doors with railroad irons,

and then hacksawed their way

through the bars, to drag Hamilton

from his cell, and tighten a fresh, hemp rope

around his dark, thin neck, his screams lost

to the mob’s cheers and seething purpose,

his tears erased by May’s mid-morning rain.

 

The Guard never came,

though Sheriff Flournoy telegraphed

the Governor for troops—or so the Times

would report the following day,

beside the photograph of the man

the crowds strung up on a telephone pole

across from the Courthouse, caught mid-swing,

Hamilton’s head lolling but not snapped,

a trace of foam at his mouth.

The hilt of a knife protruded from his chest

like a key to the door of Hell.

 

The sisters, not yet ten—

the age of the girl supposedly despoiled—

would not have walked downtown to Dixon’s Dry

by themselves, but that Mama’s cold

was getting worse, and she needed liniment

and a sack of horehound drops.

 

They barely made it past

the press of bodies—and the brawls

that spun like eddies in the rush

of angry men on Milam Street—to arrive

at the store, where Mr. Dixon hurried

them inside, locked the door behind them,

let them shelter with the other ladies there.

He led the group in a prayer,

that they wouldn’t be burned out,

that the streets would clear, be safe again.

Maybe some of them prayed for the soul

of that colored man—and maybe not.

 

Years later, of this day, the sisters would not speak.

But more than once, it might be said,

that prayer can’t loose the knot

that binds a chiliad of hearts in evil deeds—

and magick has other things to do than try.

 

*

 

Grannie B Tells the Origin of the Mounds

 

You children been out on the Mounds again,

ain’t you?  Mercy, all that dirt over your pretty dresses,

and Cole dang near black as your daddy’s heart.

Be glad your Mama is out calling on friends,

because I’ve seen her switch for naughty boys

and girls.  Now, don’t give me that look, Vidalia!

Heavens, I’m only teasing… Come to think on it,

your Mama used to climb out here herself

when she wasn’t much taller than a cotton bush.

Always said she wanted to find herself some Injun bones,

and don’t you think there wasn’t some Caddos

to be found.  Yes, Cole, real Caddo Injuns!

Did you know, there’s all kinds of tales how those Mounds

came to be? Some say it was ants.  Ants!  As if

little bitty ants could make fifty foot circles six feet high!

Some say wind.  Others, water volcanoes.  Now,

I might not have gone to that fancy St. Vincent’s school

for girls like your Mama or your sister Maggie,

(it wasn’t built yet, you see, and I suspect

I’d have deviled the nuns), but I’m fairly sure

there’s no such thing as a water volcano.  (Honestly!)

Once, I even heard some folks say the Mounds

were Injun garden-beds piled up to help dry out the soil,

so corn roots wouldn’t drown.  I could maybe see that…

And there is bits of Injun pottery turned up all over.

Right here in Stormy Point, back in ’85 (your Mama

would’ve been about ten, then), Col. S. D. Pitts,

a family friend, dug a cellar and uncovered  a treasure—

a large pot full of ants (which ain’t much of a treasure,

if you ask me).  But there was a small pot too, cradling

precious baby bones, as well as keeping rifle barrels,

a knife some eight inches long, and a tomahawk—

which I doubt could scalp the dirt of you, Cole—

goodness’ sakes, do you have some on your eyelashes?…

What was I—oh.  Even before then, in 1870

(right before I married Grandpappy, may he rest

Somewhere), high water washed out the southwest corner

of the Point and unearthed a skeleton wearing green copper

shoulder plates and a silver crown.  And back then

everyone round here knew the legend of the Last Caddo Chief

buried in the Mounds. —Oh, listen to me!  Rambling on

with those same stories I used to tell your Mama and your aunts

and uncles every summer when we’d come up here for a spell

to visit the beefy side of the Sibleys.  But only your Mama

ever cared much about stories.  She still does—kind of like you,

Lulah, in your little scribblings. Alright then, your verses!

Now run along, you three, and take off your clothes,

I’ll go heat that water for your bath.

 

*

A Stop at Old Wives’ Oak

 

Its leaves have turned coal-orange

and brown as cinnamon crisp,

and Maggie is late in planting

her one, her true, her daffodil—the wispy

bulb paper crinkling

 

in the yawn of afternoon breeze.

She’s sworn the twins, just-turned-teen,

to secrecy, as she scoops a hole

in the earth, then sets the bulb like a queenly

diadem in its cache—and polls

 

for their opinion.  Lulah snorts

cicada-sharp, goes back to her whittling,

but Vidalia softens like a lemon cream,

a dream of romance (and her teeth) nibbling

at her lip.  “It’s perfect!”  She beams

 

at her elder sister, and Maggie smooths

the last of the dirt on top, says a spell

for winter to be kind, and spring

to be kinder yet.  May what dwells

here now in warmer months bring

 

felicity, she thinks.  As for sisters

sowing wishes, how far off some day seems—

Maggie envisions that yellow bloom, thick

with promise.  The Oak gleams

bright fire, shakes off its leaves like magick.

 

*

 

The Invisible Empire on Parade

 

No horns, but pipes and drums resound

unimpeded by ghostly drapery

as the Knights of the Bayou parade

downtown.  Six men abreast

carry the Stars and Bars, and another six,

a pennant with bright red lettering,

Shreveport Klan #2 Wants You.

The pageant in white extends as far down

McNeill Street as the sisters can see.

 

At the edges, a few men break formation

to give sweets to small children,

or to salute amputees back from war,

or to pass out pamphlets and “Do You Know” cards.

One is slipped into Tallulah’s hand.

She whispers, “This here says Pope Benedict XV

is hell-bent on taking over America.

I don’t think he can be bothered, myself.”

Vi whispers back, “We shouldn’t be here.”

 

Next to her, Bonham claps and cheers

along with the crowd.  He turns to Vi,

slaps her slight shoulders in a hug.

“I’m signing up at the picnic afterwards.”

“Idiot boy, you’re a Catholic,” says Lulah.

Several looks are shot their way,

the only things dark about the faces nearby.

Bonham appears as though he might reply,

then crushes Vi a little closer to him.

Her whimper is almost lost in a martial surge

of voices singing “The Old Rugged Cross.”

 

The Knights turn east along Texas Street,

towards the river and the picnic promised

at parade’s end.   Disgust—at Bonham,

at white robes hiding craven hearts,

at sweet, spineless Vi—wells up in Lulah then,

hot and sudden as a burning cross.

 

*

 

ERA at the WDC

 

Today’s meeting of the Women’s Department Club

buzzes with ladies, and a few husbands

more or less tied to their wives by sashes

or buttons proclaiming Equal Rights for All

sit quietly bored.  Guests drink tea or nibble

petite water chestnut sandwiches on marble bread,

though Lulah spits hers into a handkerchief,

“These taste like sheep sh—a sheep’s pen.”

The remark earns her a shove from Vi

and cherry-sour looks from Maggie and Mama.

 

With a Baptist preacher’s fervor,

the Club president orates an article

reprinted from Monday’s New York Times.

She punctuates the text with asides and angry smacks

to the podium, seething over Samuel Gompers’

backhanded concern for women’s safety:

“The difference of opinion is over the question

of whether the proposed blanket amendment would result

in the destruction of standards and safeguards

now established in the law of the States

for the protection of women in industry…

I assure the women of the country that those laws

would be not only endangered but would be destroyed.”

She stamps her foot at that pronouncement, and adds,

“Ladies, that… that Jew Communist wants to protect us

right out of our rights, the same way our great State of Louisiana

refuses to ratify the 19th Amendment—over a year

after the men in Washington have ratified it

for the entire country! We must not stand for it.”

Lulah whispers, “He’s not even a Socialist, you know.”

“Be quiet,” Vi hisses.

 

The president finishes reading, then introduces

a Shreveport attorney, John D. Williams, one of four Southern men

the Times mentions to endorse the National Women’s Party

campaign. His speech whips up a crowd already frothy,

and when he concludes, even the husbands stand to clap.

Mama, who never says much, looks positively lovesick,

as she glides from her seat to the front of the room

to shake his hand and thank him for his words.

 

Maggie and Vi swoon a bit as well, but Lulah says,

“Don’t see why we have to depend on men

to give us women’s rights…Couldn’t magick fix this?”

Maggie’s sigh rolls out like mist.  “You know it can’t.”

No, of course not—magick only bends the will of one.

There are still too many men to be undone.

 

*

 

Supplication

 

My sister, her breathing

as regular as rows of cotton

on Highway 1, does not hear me

unlatch the window, shimmy

down the magnolia to our back yard.

 

Like the Widow Solley said to do,

I’m bare beneath my shift,

lift my arms to this new December moon,

call on Gréine, St. Monica, and Demeter.

 

Then I hold a smudge of sage

and juniper and light it, the scent

of Christmas, burning.  The shadows cling;

no sticks crack beneath my feet

as I touch the smoldering roll

to the corners of our house,

scorch small ash-crosses on four shingles

to repel the shade of duplicitous love

that snares us Sibley women every time.

 

Beneath the gardenia hedge, leaves

black but glinting, I take out

a rosewood box, old treasures replaced

with seven strips of linen once red

now brown, which I’ve shredded

with fingers bare of rings

and stiff as sorrow.  No shears

forged by man to defile this offering;

no spade but my hands to turn the earth,

 

which takes the cloth to heart,

transforms its purpose.

I drink the Widow’s draft of wild yam,

black cohosh, faerie-wand, and pray.

 

Work my will, preparations;

what the Widow Solley said, be true:

all that was meant to hasten marriage

bring instead moon’s flood;

what’s false, cast out.

 

As the barred owl hoots its octave,

the pines tremble.

 

*

 

Letter from Tallulah

Downtown Shreveport, February 1923

 

Today at Church, old Father Windbag

began with the proverb

“A merry heart does good like a medicine,

but a broken spirit dries the bones.”
Believe me, there were a number of bones

drying in the pews by the time

he maundered through his homily.  I myself

lost the will to live at least eight times,

and whispered as much to Stonewall

(when he wasn’t snoring),

and didn’t know anyone overheard me

till Good Christian Mrs. Crockett

said “Bless My Soul!” half a dozen times,

and Mama swatted me with her missal.

Meanwhile, Calvin’s and Magnolia’s

cow-eyes promised a little bit more

than peace be with you, and Mama didn’t hit them.

Anyway, when I say Father ended with Lamentations,

I don’t just mean the church goers’.

He wandered through six books of the Old Testament

like it was forty years in the desert.

And through it all, Grannie B behaved

as pious as a nun in black bombazine,

her head bowed over the Holy Book,

and looking for all the world

like she was following along, flipping pages,

moved often to say “Amen!”,

even though ours ain’t that kind of church.

And then I noticed it wasn’t the Family Bible

at all, just the loose book cover she’d wrapped

around her old spell-and-remedy book,

which made me laugh, which made Mama

promise I’d be sorry when I got home—

and she didn’t much like when I muttered

what’s the point of grounding a fifty-year-old?

(Because that’s how long it will be till we leave.)

When Father finally gave the benediction,

people ran for the doors like Noah’s flood

or maybe devil dogs were after them.

I bet the angels heard “Deo gratias!”

all the way in the clouds.  So be glad

you weren’t here, Vi.  After a service like that,

no amount of prayer can save you.

 

—Come home soon, Lulah

 

*

 

Letter from Vidalia

Highland Sanitarium, February 1923

 

Lulah—

 

Do you see the stars tonight,

like so many buttons on a great gray coat?

The Dove and Dog I see at once,

and then the Twins, Castor and Pollux,

on a long walk across the sky—

it makes me think of us, and I start

to cry, but I mustn’t cry again—it’s an art

the White Army stamps out, like the night’s

with their pills—sarcasm like whiskey

under their breaths.  (Thanks—the coat

you sent, its flowers orange as Pollux,

is warm as Honey-slobber.)  All at once

the gas lamps surge in their sconces

and dim—the way houselights start

to flicker at intermission’s end.  All clocks

tell a lie it’s ten, but it’s eight at night

when they call bedtime, check petticoats

and pillows for anything sharp.  (Buttinskis,

you would say.)  A last glance at the sky

from my mouse-hole window, and I’m ensconced

between thin sheets and board—no sugarcoating

insomnia, I stay awake to startle

them, whisper to swan-fathers at night,

and then in day, speak of my sister Pollux—

but my mythology’s wrong—Pollux

was my brother, I’ll say—and they, in husky

tones tsk tsk like metronomes, or censure me outright:

call for another sedative, like starburst, once

my fancy plays itself out, starts

to wrinkle in the chest, like an old coat—

the Colonel’s moth-balled coat,

covered with dust and powder burns.  Relax,

Lulah—I may be muddled, but my heart’s

flight extends as the Dove in the sky,

lightyears and degrees, and only once

or twice, reaches an unhappy azimuth.  Tonight,

as I draw your coat closer around me, the sky

like castor oil could drown you, Pollux, once

the stars, undone, reveal me, naked as the night.

 

—In madness (or not), “Lyssa”

 

*

 

Unmaking at Old Wives’ Oak

 

Fresh dark earth has been upturned

where a dozen would-be brides

have planted daffodils for spring.

Lulah can’t help thinking of the bulbs

as little graves, and the women

as waiting for death in dupioni and lace.

 

But she’s here to dig and plant as well,

and spares them no more thought

as she sets down her pail and finds

the star-marked knot in the trunk.

She sinks fingers into the dirt,

upsetting earthworms, pillbugs, beetles,

till she finds the cherry cask.

 

The bread inside is mealy and green-

dusty with mold.  Lulah wrinkles

her nose, but a deal’s a deal.  She places

the loaf on a handkerchief, and empties

the pail into the cask.

 

It falls like an overripe alligator pear,

bruised and wrinkled and stinking

of burnt sugar and month-old possum.

After she reburies it, she prays

 

Oh, Dark  Mother in ether’s blue wail

you’ve held my soul untormented.

Take in exchange what’s in this pail,

a tattered heart to weight the scale.

Restore my soul when I eat this bread—

 

She gags it down and mutters thanks—

woozy and feverish, she begins to shake:

a lifetime of little sins, and unkind turns

and worser spites, sharp as when first erred,

besiege her at once, turn her hands bloody—

no stigmata, this.  She licks them clean,

lone disciple at a dark communion.

 

*

JC Reilly writes across genres and has received Pushcart and Wigleaf nominations for her work. She serves as the Managing Editor of the Atlanta Review and has pieces published in the Grub Street, South Carolina Review, PoetrySouth, POEM, and the anthology, Nasty Women Poets, among others. When she isn’t writing, she plays tennis or works on improving her Italian. Follow her @aishatonu.