Barbara Conrad: Fish Camp, Indian River 1956

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I swear on a stack of Bibles I’m from the south. To be specific, I’m a Tarheel born and a Tarheel bred and when I die I’ll be a Tarheel dead. I can still twirl my baton from high school. Staples in our house were yeast rolls, watermelon pickles, country ham with red-eye gravy and chess pie. When my mother asked if we wanted creamed sweet corn or corn on the cob and we said both, she fixed both. I’ve been published in lots of journals and anthologies — Tar River, Broad River, Pembroke, Kakalak, Southern Poetry, Southern Women’s, NC Literary Review and way back when, Dead Mule. I’ve got two collections: The Gravity of Color and Wild Plums (but it’s not about plums). Here’s the hard truth. I grew up a clueless WHITE girl in the south, been trying to account for that ever since. Some of these poems reflect my metamorphosis!

Fish Camp, Indian River, 1956

I’m the one you see with the bony legs

and new frizzy perm, the one scuffling

with my brother outside our shabby cabin

while our parents cast fishing lines

into the greasy river,

me hopping to balance on one foot

while trying to pull a sandspur

out of the other, good heel coming down hard

on more stickers, falling on my knees, knees

that’ll be stuck and scabbed the whole vacation

here where conch shell

ashtrays clutter the porch and mosquitoes

gnaw holes in our screens, while my friends

have gone to a Holiday Inn

or maybe even the Waldorf Astoria

in New York City and I’m the one

in a hole hot as hell, the one whose skin

will tan dark this summer

so back home everyone will say,

“Wow, you sure are black,” and

I’ll smile because it’s a good thing, and

it won’t be until much later that I’ll find out

what I was that summer was not black at all,

but very very white, in fact so white

I might one day opt out of such a dreary place

reeking of fish bait, waitress in the diner

sopping hotcakes with cane syrup,

thick and bitter as the river, might choose

if I wanted, to stay at a motel with a fancy

swimming pool, even join some highfalutin

country club, where I’d know

that deserved or not, I could get in.