Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: Two Poems

Southern Legitimacy Statement:

All my folks on my momma’s side that I know of came to Oklahoma from South Carolina and Kentucky, on the Southern route. I grow collard greens, sweet potatoes, and okra in my vegetable garden (or did, before I moved to the mountains of New Mexico. Does anybody know of you can grow okra in the mountains?). I used to try to hide my accent but have decided it’s an asset. My husband likes to tell the story of when we were in a Powdrell’s, a barbeque restaurant in Albuquerque, and the owner, a man from East Texas, came all the way acrost the room to tell me how much he loved to hear me git excited about finding “sweet-tea” on the menu. And anyway, Oklahoma (especially eastern and southern Oklahoma, where I’m from) is a Southern state where the eighth college of the Seven Sisters of the South was founded, where barbeque is a sacrament (served dry, sauce on the side), and where I learned to eat granny’s homemade chow chow with beans. The story of Sarah Venable Little as told in my poem, my great-great-great is true so far as I know it; the baby she’s carrying is my great-great grandpa. The diary section is purely imaginary.

What Sarah Venable Little Told the Sheriff
May 1863, Lockesburg, Arkansas

I came out to bring his dinner
just a biscuit full of bacon and butter
and a tin cup of cold water from the well.
Our boy Sterling Price was napping on a featherbed
in the fresh air and shade of the east porch.

I was slow at fixing our midday meal,
so awkward and worn out, so full with child—
any other day I would have come round the barn
in time to see who done it, but as it was
all I noticed was dust flying down the road a ways.

John, I called, but he did not answer; he was fond
of fooling with me but I was in no mood for fun.
John, I hollered, don’t toy with me, I brought
your dinner and I am hot and tired and now the
baby is crying.
But he did not answer still.

I shaded my eyes and looked out over the field.
No John, and no horses, neither. When I spied
the plow laid over I thought maybe he had
taken the horses down to the creek for a drink.
Thinking to set the plow aright, I went over that way.

It was his leg I saw first, caught up in the plow—
My John, My God I thought that when he come back
from the war I would have no more to worry about
but there he lay, the brown shirt I just mended covered
in blood and him reaching out to me with a quivering hand.

His lips were moving but he had not breath
enough to call out to me; his eyes were darting
about, frantic, like those of a startled horse.
I sat beside him, put his head in my lap, kissed
his salty cheek and heard his last word: carpetbaggers.

**

What Sarah Venable Little Wrote in Her Diary
May 1866, Lockesburg, Arkansas

Dear sons,

Try my best, I can’t put off my dying
any longer, the Lord calls, and I must go,

leaving you orphans of an orphan—
my mother dead just last month

my father dead in this accursed war
that has taken so many

your father dead of fruits of this war
murdered in his own fields.

I leave you to your uncle Sam
over to the next county he

is the only one left who
has means to care for you.

I pray that one day you will
take up my words and read them,

that you will read these words
and heed them and repent.

I cannot help but believe
that this dying all around us

is God’s great wrath come down
on your father’s family and mine

because we turned away from
our grandmothers’ simple faith.

Forgotten the commandment
to never take up arms against another.

We have sinned sinned sinned.
We are covered in blood unrepentant.

We spilled the blood
of the poor Indians in their fields.

We put the lash to the bloody backs
of the Negroes in the fields.

We have murdered our kin
in the fields of war.

Here in these bloody fields
we have sown your orphanage.

So shall you reap that which you sow–
This, too, is God’s promise to his children.

Honor your mother’s dying words,
swear upon your father’s bloody field:

We repent of our family’s sins
and will go and sin no more.