JC Reilly: Five Poems
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up across from cotton fields in Shreveport, Louisiana with my Mama and sister, back when anything south of of the city that wasn’t covered in cotton was covered in kudzu. Not too far from our home was a rise in the landscape behind which the Red River rushed, and we’d toss sticks into it and watch them shamble down river or catch on a sandbar. And every day, even in winter, you didn’t feel like you were living unless the humidity wilted you flat.
Funeral Food and Ida Chatter
Grannie and the Widow step out from the parlor
full of mourners onto the front porch, each carrying
a glass of sweet tea and a plate piled high with funeral food.
As they sit in the swing, Grannie says, “If we have to gnash
our teeth over the death of my grandson, we may as well
gnash our teeth on Florien Crockett’s fried chicken.”
“Lordy, Ida, be nice!” says the Widow. She picks up a drumstick
and bites into it. “Is that Tabasco I taste? And cinnamon?”
“Anything’s possible,” says Grannie, glancing at the chicken.
She shoots a dubious look at the rest of the plate’s contents:
tuna casserole, tuna-broccoli-noodle casserole, coleslaw,
broccoli-rice casserole, pork-n-beans, ten layer salad,
potato-bacon-cheese casserole à la Someone-or-Other
from the Church, dumplins, and pineapple upside-down cake.
“Heaven knows, the best thing to do when someone dies
is eat.” Grannie’s laugh is cold as Caddo Lake in January,
and sharp as the swing’s creak. She says, “Goldie ain’t stopped
crying since his fall.” The Widow puts a free arm around her.
“Let’s do a healing tonight,” she invites. “I have new sage.”
Grannie nods as she pushes her food around. It makes a face,
a Medusa perhaps, but not good enough a likeness to turn
her to stone, though she might wish it could. She shoves
the plate behind her on the railing. She doesn’t turn her head
at the noise when it crashes to the porch. “It’s Delhi all over,
trying to catch that twenty he won at cards that blew out
of his pocket and over the side of the KCS truss bridge.
He had about as much sense as a coin purse after tax day.
And Cole’s just like his dad. Why, he wouldn’t know bright
if Edison handed him a lightbulb.” She might have said more,
but thinks better of it as Mama shuffles out on the porch
looking as if she’s fallen into a well of loneliness and soaked
through with tears. Not that Grannie minds talking ill of the dead,
just not where polite folks—and grieving mothers—can hear.
The Colonel’s Last Stand
Too wet a spring
has made Caddo swallow
its shoreline like a tide too set
in its ways to roll back out,
the hard Lou’siana clay
boggy, its sandbars a myth.
Even what’s not lake officially
sucks boots up to the calves:
Hawley Arm less land than sponge.
Grannie B says at this rate
she’ll have to row the Brittle Moon
past the barn to check the melons.
Today, what she calls
a “Southern drizzle”: bladder-sized
splatters to drown you where you stand—
unless you’re one of the cypresses,
which haven’t the sense to mind
the water creeping up their trunks
like hemlines on a Flapper.
Not so this sage magnolia,
which minds too much—the magnolia
dubbed “the Colonel” after her Papa,
planted on a rise overlooking
the lake when her parents wed,
before the War—back when everything,
including the lake, knew its place.
And then—a waver of limbs,
soundless with the storm-whipped
water—the magnolia eases
sideways, slides into the lake to lie
half-submerged, a strange counterfeit
to the cypresses. Muddy roots
pulled free push wildly at the air,
like bones in a mass grave, dug up.
Grannie B takes in the fallen tree
from the porch. “It’s too wet
to cry over the Colonel. Lord knows,
we did enough of that at Mansfield.”
In the lake, filled to the brim,
white tea-cup blooms on wide green saucers.
Three quarters’ full: Vi in the back seat;
Lulah, center, rowing; Honey in the prow
barking at clouds and pelicans on derricks.
Cypress stumps stretch across the surface
like a hall of empty seats. It’s not quite nine.
The bass and crappie might be biting.
In reeds, they stop and bait their hooks with red-
and-butterworms. Vi whispers half-a-spell
to make hers work harder; it shimmies on cue.
The only thing Lulah casts is her line—
and muttered slanders against Vi’s taste in beaux.
Honey settles in to snooze. As Saturday morning
darkens into noon, Lulah’s scowl seems to break
the weather: Vi’s ease fades, a mist in the squall;
the fish like phantoms in the empty hall.
Grannie Boeuf Sibley’s wedding quilt
is spread out on their laps,
the one Mama should have burned
during the Fever, when Grannie’s skin
turned dulled saffron as the sun
behind the smoke from the cotton mill.
Stained from births and deaths,
from years of sleeps, its warmth
the fabric of memory, the quilt
hasn’t lain on a bed in years.
Too delicate for such utility these days.
The sisters have taken it down
from the wall, as if they finally see its age,
as if its blemishes seem somehow
suddenly to be corrected: the hole
in the lavender linsey center star
has worsened, and Tallulah eases out
the seams of the block, pulling away
the cotton batting and the backing
with fingers gnarled as crepe myrtles,
trying hard not to rub away the fabric
like paper. She takes apart the star
as if unmaking the heavens, gives
Vidalia the pieces who sets them
against tissue to make a pattern
for the indigo worsted she has found
in a trunk, traces out triangles.
These Vidalia pins to fabric, cuts;
begins to sew tiny, even stitches
she could make were she blind, hands
so used to the in-and-out advance
of the needle, seams straight as compass points.
Star reborn, she returns it to Tallulah
who places the block back at its center,
checks for sizing. Vidalia offers the old pieces
to stuff into the batting; not a scrap
must be removed, nor history lost.
Tallulah secures the cloth, secrets within
a sprig of angelica and thimbleweed, recreates
the stitching of a hundred years past.
The star is not for wishing on.
Tallulah Brings Home News
At Dixon’s Dry, I was standing
by the sour ball jars and horehound
drops. (I had a nickel, from when I helped
Grannie with the weeding—but I only
planned to spend a penny, honest, Mama.)
Good Christian Mrs. Crockett strolled in,
wrapped in that fox stole she always wears,
even in the heat, and like I wasn’t even
standing ahead of her, ordered three yards
of flannel bunting and blue ribbon.
Mr. D brought down the bolt,
shot me a sad ol’ sorry look, and asked
what the good word was. Well, you know
she’s about as likely to leak a secret
as the Red is to jump its banks after
a gullywasher. Seems that Larasue Buckelew,
who’s supposed to marry in the summer,
is pushing up her wedding to Valentine’s Day,
as if good Christian folks won’t notice her skirts
being let out like circus tents. I said
I thought Valentine’s a much sweeter day
to get hitched, ‘cause Larasue could wear pink
for her wedding gown and trim it with red
rosettes. But Mrs. Crockett’s expression
withered like the watermelon vines behind
Grannie’s barn, said there’s only one reason
a girl won’t wear white, and wasn’t it
a shame, a scandal, an abomination
in a good Christian family? Why,
Larasue was lucky she wasn’t being sent away
to the Sisters, and she’s a Baptist. Mrs. Crockett
made us swear we wouldn’t tell just as Mr. D
finished cutting the cloth and wrapping it
in butcher paper. He wouldn’t gossip
anyhow—those Dixons are quiet as river
stones—and I said if I spoke a word of it
the Lord should smite me where I stand.
That’s why I stopped at Holy Trinity on the way
and pre-confessed my loose tongue.
God can’t do a thing to me now.