Four poems by Shelby Stephenson


I don’t know why I call them jonquils.
There is no John in them, though I have
seen them rich with yellow and white
come up next to the backhouse bright
with oak seasoned by rear-ends that rubbed
the smoothed boards around the holes.

“Backhouse” is a euphemism for outhouse,
which word, by the way, we (family)
would never say. I restored it
just to show it was where my brother Paul bit
his lips as he read his loved one’s letters, finally,
before they wed; he built a house with a bathroom for that spouse.

But I was going to say, when truth sprouted up the flowers,
there, those short-tubed clusters, all jonquils,
first at the rear of the backhouse’s richest dirt,
that I must have heard my mother say the word
“jonquils” before anybody else. I don’t know why “daffodil”
she never said; thus jonquils sound refreshing showers.



The rufous-sided One is a bird,
Archie Ammons says in “Hardweed Path Going.”
He – the reddish-eyed male – with that sooty and bold
black on his breast, the soft rufous sides
and belly white as my baby-blanket, the sides
of meat in the pan sizzling grits, grits, little bird,
come get your grits, when the female, not as bold
in color, yet distinct head a brown, her back and throat going
up and down as she scratches February away, going
on with her dancing, jo-reet, jo-reet, as I say, jo-reet, to take sides
with her and with him, for I don’t want to be a bold
enough intruder to scare them into clumps. I say, “my little bird,
go on, on your own”; yet the two stay near as going
seems heavenly to me, my chirpers, never mine, so free on all sides.



BECAUSE I want to be with you always
I wave the first goodbye, a friendly sway
A flourish promises nothing shall wrong
Our parting until I come back to you.
I shall prove my care a thousand ways.
We share our spun-out odyssey housing
The open road shaping our destiny.
Concept conjures a phoenix in a hover.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.

I try to find myself, my Love,
Since I am the first and last; you are the best.
Welcome to upsy downsy one more time.
Hello’s Goodbye clumps our lovesome fests.
Beauty’s Truth snuggles lasting Romance.
Touch stills our hearts’ thrum when I see you.
Then our world turns to routine errands
Which stay your raw desire for requital.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.

We cannot explain all this to anyone.
Waiting and waving make time seem just right
Among the bluebirds and Canada geese,
The squirrels and the semi-tamed rabbit
My father would have shot for the table
For his Maytle to fry or Q the way an artist
Might paint Grace, say a Thanks for pleasure,
Then leave all their thoughts to other parties.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.

Experience turns color as it will
And marks sunrise to sunset with water
Which runs along to shape another hill,
A climb to make the past proper order,
Set things right again for us, within years,
Decades passing without losing freedom
Coming into our lives: we seem almost free,
Two, one, inbound, apparent passages.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.

I know that exiting a dream’s raggedness
Demands a part in a story without mascot.
Lightness undoes the wedges stuck lock
Like sheets tangled up in warts,
Some flesh, nightmare’s history of slavery,
Before the waking up, glad to say Just a dream.
Consider an overseer scheming
To put even one loyal servant in place.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.

Oh sufferers! Take all roads, low and high.
In county courthouses, search documents.
Let the preaching become a loom to weave
The fabric of infinite records there,
The defective unity of our years,
The secrecies of children in wombs,
The promise of brand new people aware
That Love and Affection shape the one soul-topper.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.

A dig would reveal who lies in the graves
Across the road in the Old Graveyard kept
Now by a group of families who say
We want to remain close, by all means: let
Us not forget the many breasts we lay
On then and now, the milk and honey our ancestors
Worked for money while the muse of longing shores
Complacence to multiply awful descents.
                    Good night and sleep tight, my Love.




AROUND me flashes half a century – toast:
A schooling, some friends and guests, a wedding;
A corporation, leave of absence.
I am still on leave, but not from verse, letting
The words come out generously, as best
They can, the wars – Korea, Nam, getting
Into the cavern where sloughs shed my mind
For peace and energy keeping time.


The girls I used to know fifty years ago
Fade into viburnum’s blossoms
Among schools of retirement just to show
I am tired of words that work like sloshing
Criticisms toppling shadows in rows
Of elements and brambling gospels
That vanish when a woman opens a door
And I know I am in love one time more.


Humble with nostalgia I get sad
As my brother Paul sinks into his bed
Dies, his son, calling me, “He’s still warm, Shub,”
And I ride two miles to kiss his forehead,
Detail like that, his humor, never bad,
Corny enough to blow away the dread
Mortality puts in the song I sing
Because I know what real joy singing brings.


And Ammons – gone, Hughes, Wolfe, Ellison, Guest,
Liner, Jacobs, Haley, Roethke, Dickey,
And Possum Jones runs a race filled with mice
Coming into the house winter breeches.
I get my old ski-jacket; there’s ice
I see in the bird-bath, the one tickle
Over the fake well of the plankhouse, rust,
Inheritances, plus the doilies, dust.


My eyes close and my heart and mind go dark.
That woman appears again at the door
And my eyes fade over parks.
I realize our children are more
The ones no secret ever could mark
Or surprise the story of I Love You − for
It has no ending after all these years;
No thought can change into song the lack of tears.


I’ve always thought of the bigger picture,
The god or goddess on the rise, the sun
Bringing on romance without sinister,
Tedious bargains in malls people run
And want to fill in time; not me: I say the lecture
And advertisements, the world-in-your-face-dom,
Shall come round again with every sunrise
To show its noble carriage void of lies.


Detour, there’s a muddy road ahead,
Detour, the song says, from this road, paved, now,
With zooms and blasts where once the corn turned red
In fall and boys pulled fodder when leaves curled brown
And shouldered their guns to hunt the game that fed
Us round the table: what’s next for me to sound,
Except cliché, something like What a ride
I am living now, the door, yours, opening wide.


Shelby Stephenson served as Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 2015-2018. Recent books: Possum (Bright Hill Press), winner of Brockman-Campbell Award; Elegies for Small Game (Press 53), winner of Roanoke-Chowan Award; Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl (Bellday Books), the Bellday Prize; Paul’s Hill: Homage to Whitman (Sir Walter Press); Our World (Press 53); Fiddledeedee (The Bunny and the Crocodile Press; reprinted by Press 53); Nin’s Poem (St. Andrews University Press); Slavery and Freedom on Paul’s Hill (Press 53); More (Redhawk Publications). A member of the Society of Distinguished Alumni, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, serving as editor of Pembroke Magazine from 1979 until his retirement in 2010. He lives at the homeplace on Paul’s Hill, where he was born, near McGee’s Crossroads, about ten miles northwest of Benson, North Carolina.

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