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.

Brittle Moon

 

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.

Bee

 

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.