My Southern Legitimacy Statement: My parents hailed from small communities about an hour north of Baltimore, places where front porch sittin’ and strawberry eatin’ were the norm during the longest days of June. I remember my mother’s dad liked his smashed, with a pinch of sugar to make them syrupy, and poured over vanilla ice cream. Pa and Nana lived north of the Mason-Dixon by fifteen miles, but everything in their life came from points south: friends, food, news, and baseball . . . good God the baseball! I think there was a time I considered changing my name to Brooks. Later, when I took my first job as a sportswriter in West Virginia, I realized just how prepared I was for life in the South.
The Ballad of Lillie Belle Allen
My sister, Lillie Belle, demands my attention
across distances covered by the foot, in my mind.
Memory peels off finish in snakeskin strips,
uncovers my grain and most-stubborn stains.
Her kinetic lessons continue to clutter my head,
echo and bounce around the hollowed-out core
of remembrance. Oh hell, Belle—
You arrived everywhere long before me;
Taught me to swim, walked me to school.
You said “Hattie, now listen,” smile narrow
as your eyes. “Watch close; see how it goes.”
On Saturday afternoons bound by chalk,
you scratched our games on a concrete canvas,
skipped rocks ’cross a sun-flecked creek.
You mined the mud at your feet for flat stones
worn smooth by water, scored by love,
snapped your licorice arm over the backwater,
raised a bleeding bead on its rippled skin.
“Stand up straight; squish your shoulders.”
Quick with the clasp of my pink prom dress—
“Lawd knows the troubles that ladies suffer
for the love of ungrateful men.” Lillie Belle
straightened her apron and cinched her skirt,
pushed meatloaf and fries to the counter crowd,
a queue of white faces with orders stacked
high as a civil court docket after marches
in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham—
two days behind the counter in Greensboro.
Her pad stashed in a flash in the end table’s
drawer, she slipped back in front of the evening
news. “Sometimes pride trumps a job,” she said,
as I shuffled off to spin Aretha Franklin.
We practiced driving in daddy’s Caddy;
she filled me up with confidence, fueled
my angst-tinged vision of independence,
which drove me to the great, white North,
where opportunity shared a checkerboard
with danger, a different story by the block.
Here in York, the balance died with King
and simple skirmishes filled our weekends.
Until the fatal shot, steeped in clarity, declared
that something had to give. So the Army sent
its tanks to plow under the macadam, while the
Newberry Street Boys bought matching jackets.
It was worry that drove her, Momma and Daddy.
Wise to stay put, but we were hungry all the same.
And everyone grabbed their jacket from the tree,
hers a raincoat she donned with a managed smile.
She saw the danger in the makeshift blockade,
Trojan horse set ahead of the tracks, but I froze
at the sight of gunmetal in moonlight—“Don’t
stop!” Lillie Belle was there before me again,
grasping for the latch of Daddy’s white Caddy,
helping hand spreading a stain as she slumped
to the sidewalk, cool, in a pool of blood.
We knew a thousand varieties of hide-and-seek, this gang of eight drawn from a tiny
cluster of houses—two farm families’ and a preacher’s, looking for one another
on a sliver of land one-acre square.
The Martin kids were Mennonite, the horse-and-buggy sort, with names that read
like a primer on the minor prophets: Amos, Luke and Titus.
And Margaret Herr, a blue jeans girl, climbed trees like a boy, shimmying
her way up a Poplar on the property line, leaving my brother, who climbed trees
like a girl, alone at the roots and wishing she wore skirts.
My sister, a born matron, reviewed the rules ad nausea, hanging
back to ensure we little ones didn’t skip numbers and counted with our eyes closed.
But we had proven we weren’t afraid of the dark—tucked behind bushes, the odd car
left in the lot behind Daddy’s church, and shadowy spots by the doorjambs.
We kicked the can as the breeze picked up, the way it does after dusk in June, admiring the scent of green tobacco and horse dung blowing across the road from Mr. Martin’s farm.
The Weight of Words
Hold on—soon a new day will dawn warm and bright.
You say this many times, as if to carve it on your soul.
I pick at a scar and search for a barren spot to write.
I know the weight to my anxious ramblings late at night
feels less like an even exchange and more like a hole.
Hold on, love, soon a new day will dawn warm and bright.
Lip-service praise to the notion faith goes beyond sight
wears at the fabric of a man like a stone too heavy to roll.
So I pick at my scars and search for a clean slate tonight.
There is an unspeakable volume in words that are light,
a surge as your nails on my aching back continue to scroll.
I begin to believe a new day will dawn warm and bright.
Your rose-colored cheeks illuminate my fatalist blight,
serve as a sign that we’re two equal parts of a whole.
But I need these scars to remind me I’m good for a fight.
When I think on our life I’m convinced more is right
than any picture depicting one moment can really show.
Hold me tighter; a new day will dawn warm and bright.
The scars will be no more than prompts for stories I write.
All hail the boy bric-a-brac, three years old and two-foot-five, marching the perimeter
of the room with his magic glasses and enchanted horn …
living life in circles around us all.
With Osh-Kosh bibs slung over one shoulder, and little boy blue eyes full of mischief
tapped from a familiar vein, his eyes search for chances to carve chaos out of
Using charm and a grin, he can hook your heart and draw it straight out, providing you
haven’t already yielded it on your own.
And with a simple request he can melt away the thousand pounds of residuals from the
real world spanning your shoulders.
“Send me into space!” he will cry. “Again! Again!”
But you’re already flying, Jonathan, circling us all on a plane I can only remember as I
to hold you high and spin you around my head.