Red-Winged Blackbird Quilt
(after a four-square quilt by Judy Jarzembowski)
Red hearts reel Slip seam vine,
under dustpan sun. stitch, prick, burn.
White flame tips Sequined light and
lick red doilies. dark amber resin.
Sixteen blackbirds Shrill song, ochre
lift over caramel chatter, birdfoot,
waters lapping at heartwood hold.a bee-busy shore. Behold: blackbird.
our back fence, though lifting in that wind
over an empty stretch of meadow. Already,
Hanged Elephant, Erwin, Tennessee, 1916
No extra charge after the matinee.
Charlie Sparks’ World Famous Shows.
A mere five elephants, but one
a murderess. A treat for the kiddies. No warmth
this day, light rain and mist
clumping gray shreds on the boomtown
tracks. The road a gruel of mud.
She sways to the spectacle, chained outside,
a menace, stopped from batting and pitching,
from piping, from touching those others,
their trunks and hay-rich breath.
She half-craves scattered melon rinds
despite this day that is somehow wrong,
a whiff of danger, of hatred, of desire.
She has killed a man and, as the custom is,
she must be hanged. Lifted by cable
by the railroad crane as children watch,
she’ll fall. Hoisted again,
she’ll die, suspended over coffee trees.
Come, boys and girls, the killer is here.
Now we’ll end her terrible reign.
She was brought from Asia, sailing
in a wooden ship that leapt like a stallion.
From farthest Asia she was brought, massed
power and anger and guile, a poor man’s
dream snapping in the whip
of her trunk and a tamp of that heavy foot
though the man she killed was poor enough.
His behavior, abhorrent as it may be to us
today, reflected the scientific attitudes of his time.
—Theda Perdue, Florida Historical Quarterly
In Muskogee, Oba means owl. To wear an owl feather
is to court disaster. Long leaf-, slash- and sand-pine
cover miles where it’s not mockingbirds
that bother you but cicadas’ endless drone.
Pine warblers trill, and daggers of bluebirds flirt
with light and shade. A zebra swallowtail nurses
blazing star. Bachman’s sparrows invisible in palmettos
belt out green-hot ballads. When heat dives
like a caracara on anything that moves, when heat
holds white pipewort and rearing thunderheads,
if by some chance it broke, everything would collapse.
Dr. Wheedon, a man of science, wanted to understand.
The St. John River slapped through mosquito clouds
at broken shell mounds of vanished cultures. Clouds built
whiter until they fell on misty ranks of mangrove oysterbed.
Dark live oak armies, red bay, cabbage palm
where a careful eye might discover orchid species, tillandsia,
resurrection fern, or justify cane mills with living corpses,
slaves bent over distilling vats, syrup flashing
to steam to sweeten tables in Jacksonville, in London.
Late nights with his famous patient’s pathology of liver and lungs,
inexplicable loyalty to a savage wife named Morning Dew,
this British trader’s son dying not of war but of malaria
Dr. Wheedon wanted to understand and analyze. He claimed
the head before interment. It graced his study for many years.
He came to conclusions proving the savage races inferior.
Dew bent azaleas, deep walks he planted with red
camellias through oaks softened by Spanish moss. Owls in June
were giant moths silent beside his window, measuring cubic
centimeters of his skull, chock-full of pleasant dreams—
girl in clean muslin, eyes cast down, serving
tea, uncoarsening hands after years of fieldwork
becoming supple, his discovery of what he judged her dusky
octaroon beauty a chief accomplishment of his final years.
Chintz curtains floated with the softening breeze. Playfully,
she put a feather in his graying hair. Oba, she said,
which he took as a term of respect. A kind of father, he was
indeed, and wondered what admixture of barbarism leads white
blood astray until death came for Dr. Wheedon, too.
A curious specimen, relict of some long forgotten frontier war,
preserved and on display at the Medical College of New York—
the artifact came into the hands of one Dr. Valentine Mott,
but was lost in a fire. It was the head of Billy Powell, known to most
as Osceola. He haunts the place where he surrendered,
Fort San Marcos built of gray cochina quarried by slaves.
Under building clouds, remnant Florida sleeps in strangler fig.
Corpse owls doze through another tropical storm.
Cara Chamberlain has published fiction and poetry in numerous journals, including The Southern Review, The Fiddlehead, Asheville Poetry Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Front Range Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her short novel, The Devil's Party, was a finalist in the Low Fidelity Novella Contest, and she has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Her collection of poetry, Hidden Things, was recently produced by FootHills Publishing.
There was the time when the painter gave up
and became a landlady. She had her
dogs, a monkey, a raccoon: they helped
in the tedium of that decade.
She was old by then: fat, grey, waddling
in the performance of her scullery
maid’s chores—a far cry from the brave girl
the Nootka had called Klee Wyck, the laughing one.
She was beautiful then too. A boy
she met on a packer fell in love
with her and followed her to the ends
of the earth, to London, England, where
she attended art school but where
homesickness had so maddened her
she had to be sent to the East Anglia
Sanatorium. There she kept songbirds
in a cage and began to lose her looks.
She became heavy and looked wild
about the eyes. How she pined
for the picket fence treetops
above the flat grey water,
the click of mussels
the hiss and squirt
of clams, the cannery wharves
where she would embark with paints and easel!
Once back in her beloved British
Columbia she was sane again.
She returned to painting pictures
of totem poles not because, as before,
she wanted to record a dying art,
but because she was drawn to them as some
are to the mirror and make self-portrait
after self-portrait. She gave up being
a landlady, and made her best paintings:
trees, mostly, whose faces slept in the bark.
Tessa Kale was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. She has poems in The Western Humanities Review and The Yale Review and is the author of the novel Daphne Underground. She is the current editor of The Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry and The Columbia Granger's World of Poetry online. Her chapbook The Hudson Line won the 2009 Finishing Line Chapbook Contest and will be published in August 2010. She lives in New York.
I choose to endure the world
as it will be without me,
as it was before the torn
noise of my birth, the first
trembling vowel: ooh that meant
I’m here. My mother’s coo
returned, bounced like a ball
between us, the game we played
till dusk. The grand mimic
I made of myself, little ape:
banana, pajama, bandana. Oh
to taste such manna on my tongue,
the infant power of my lungs,
the first breathy yes, the last
explosive no, my nose, her nose,
touching in the raw new world.