Sunday morning, the alarm set
for dawn, I gargle lemon water
to loosen phlegm, open vocal cords.
Mother postured at the piano, paces me
up and down the major scales,
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?
I dress in a starched white blouse,
an A-line skirt hemmed precisely
below the knee. Mother stands behind me
in the mirror– cat eye glasses, Pentecostal bun
– hot-curls my ragged mane into
a semblance of respectable.
Later, in the choir loft, mother leans,
her coffee breath all over me,
whispers loud enough
for the soprano section to hear,
You’re too pretty to be so fat.
The last stars arc, dim the sash.
Wails the pitch of a coalmine’s siren
quiver my temporal bone, a song to dig a hole.
My grandfathers, coal-caked, muscle
and blood, yoked to Peabody scrip,
sinking shaft or pit, railroad cars tippled,
cinder and soot smutting miles of track,
valley fills steeped in acid spoil,
one hundred years of forest sheared.
Pained as I am to reflect, my great-greats,
pigeon-toed, gap-mouthed, pondering
how the hard-working find themselves
both proud and begging, held fast,
like a flag that never waves.
Who hasn’t rationalized themselves
a noble son or daughter, their life tightly
squeezed between two fists?
Tonight, roaming the ether,
I visit their graves, blush-pink peonies
to decorate each stone. Saying nothing,
I write, one finger in dust,
Fire in our hearts, fire in our souls,
forever together, “down in the hole”
Daddy didn’t like watermelon,
he loved cantaloupe, “musk-melon”
our family called it. He would
cut one in half, scape the seeds,
add a shake of salt inside the cavity, feast.
Daddy and his people grew up
in Putnam County, bare foot, feral.
He declared cantaloupes grown
along the East Fork Obey River,
where the air sweats and melons
swell like teats on a bluetick,
the best on earth.
Every year, late July, our family
made the pilgrimage. He’d sniff,
and thump, roll them over,
looking for blanched spots
on their netted rinds, evidence
of ripening in the field.
Like all best things, they didn’t last long.
Come mid-summer, I’ll make my way
to Putnam County. In spirit, my Daddy
will ride shotgun, shirt sleeves rolled,
collar open, puffing a Parliament Menthol
as I speed down old Highway 53, mouth watering,
the bottomlands calling me home.
Lakeside, crickets and stars,
my host said it was a Loon,
but the southeastern Ohio in me
heard coyote, the long slow wail
that comes from generations of hard luck,
skin sagging loose from the rib.
Considered the white trash of the four-footed,
you probably don’t know that tax dollars paid
fifty bucks a head to kill sixty-eight thousand
coyotes in 2019, or that forty-six percent
of Appalachian school-aged children
experienced food insecurity the same year.
Revered as first teacher by the Indigenous,
they say it was Coyote in the dark land of mists,
who called insects, birds and animals to council,
to decide if First Man and First Woman
should pass into the Third World.
Tonight, moon full, air brusque,
those forsaken dream of full bellies.
Loon flaps iridescent wings,
rears her dagger-like bill,
howls Coyote’s death song.
The conversation began
with a false step, everything
that followed was a downward
plunge, the silence left
in the middle of a sentence.
Said she felt like she was –
what was the word?
Only to realize it was one
of the first she’d learned,
one of her earliest memories.
After that, to know
it could happen again,
did happen, everything transient,
leaving her like her child self,
struggling to fill the gap.
Elsewhere, people wake,
make coffee, listen to the news.
She is focused on the process
of loss, dropping dead words
into private conversations.
As if somewhere in the mix,
she might find an end
to the mortification,
or just one day the voice
inside her head does not judge.
Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poetry collections include A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen, winner of the 2020 Ohio Poet of the Year Award and Serving, runner up, Yellow Chair Review Chapbook Award. Her poems appear in numerous journals and publications including Verse Daily, Rattle, Lascaux Review, The NY Times, and on her website: www.karigunterseymourpoet.com. A ninth generation Appalachian, she is the founder/executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project (WOAP) (www.womenofappalachia.com) and editor of the WOAP anthology series, Women Speak. She is a recipient of a 2021 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship and Poet Laureate of Ohio.