Dr. Shelby Dean Stephenson is the only person in the world I know who could write an entire book on a single clod of dirt. Shelby and I are siblings, by different sets of parents. We are children of farmers. The only thing that makes us different in that regard is that his family owned the farm; I am the daughter of a sharecropper. Through his poetry, he has paid tribute to and immortalized farmers, the keepers of Mother Earth, and I thank you for that, Shelby.
And yes, I know what a plankhouse is. Actually, I know there are two kinds: One has a bed; the other is outdoors and has a throne. And I know what a Packhouse is, and a Corn Crib, too. Thank you, Shelby, for your literary gifts of Mules, Sows, Boars, Hog-killings, Cracklins, Possums, Persimmon Trees, Old Field Graves, and Hymn-singing Mothers. Thank you for the memories of Tobacco Fields, R.C. Cola, Pepsi, Moon Pie, and Lance nabs. Thank you, too, for Hank, Elvis, and Chubby.
It is my joy and honor today to read from my beloved former college professor’s recent publication of poems, The Hunger of Freedom.
The Poem Title: “This Place, Their Praise.”
This place, their praise: hill and house,
Where they have kept the earth for decades −
I am dying for the meadowlark to spill its song
This October day, naming it,
Hoping my mind might ground an image.
The plowman, his sweep spreading
Clods the way a mole might,
And the mule’s neck nodding silence except for trace-chains
Brushing a scab on her side, scrubbing burlap;
The pulling has been so long
A part of the flare her nostrils dribble
Slanting mucous beside the rows,
Closure a drowning
Surrender toward persistence
Preceding this thrusting angle to pen in furrow-time
The way the mule’s eyes weep
One fabric, women and men,
Slaves under unmarked ground
There in the Old Stephenson Cemetery,
Boundless as the ground’s
Silence the slaves were buried in −
Coming here, I cross the stream,
Remember an old woman over a washpot,
Stirring cracklins, unrest brought low,
The tale, untold, still, its bobends
Dobbing at seed-zero
This spot, the sun on my foot,
My seat a November slant of summertime
Holding the ragged one over the cauldron,
Her fires many colors whirling centuries,
Fringes I try to place.
Into the boiling organpipe, what musicale,
Raking the hand that strokes the nostrils −
A run away mule, a beloved child,
Smaller than a Halloween ghost swaddled in leaves
Left out of a trickster’s oven overnight.
Overall the hammer-sun nails the daisies.
The soil breaks for a new house.
From The Hunger of Freedom by Shelby Stephenson. Copyright © 2014 by Shelby Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of Red Dashboard.
Southern Pines, NC
October 12, 2014