AFTER NIGHT SWIMMING IN STEPHENS CREEK, TEXAS, I AM CARRIED UP LIKE ELIJAH INTO HEAVEN

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As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
2 Kings 2:11

for Carol and for David Spero

There is a quivering in the creek water
like the flanks of a mare in heat.  In the pasture behind the log barn
there is vibration in the blood of the seed bull.
Two hawks circling the moon watch as he lifts himself
on to the backs of heifers
to lay his head between their shoulder blades and smell the quiet
in their sweat.

In air thick and damp as a lover’s tongue there are tremolos of fireflies.
There are teeming wings of mosquitoes!
A million gnats too small to be seen are carried over treetops
in heated waves of air.

I am joined in air by web worms
by flying spiders climbing oak trees to make sails of their silk.
Together, we throw ourselves into the sky
while the moon is naked as a stripper’s breast!

Moonlight is the color of skin stretched wide across the bottom land
where the ground slopes back to Stephens Creek
and javelinas come to rut.

There is a tingling in every cell of the captive  locked so long inside of freedom.
I am ready now for the moon to take me in waves
over pine thickets, over rivers dammed the colors of coiling snakes.

I am flying!

I am carried away from the San Jacinto, north to Palestine, Texas
and beyond!

I am flying!

Anyone who welcomes me now, I welcome you as my own self
and give myself in return.
As the heart of a man should be
mine is!

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FORGIVING ABSALOM


“Verily, he is victorious who has conquered himself.” Hazrat Inayat Khan

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I have heard about the courage of a child who found her alcoholic mother lying unconscious in her own vomit, again. How she left the mother there, years later coming to forgive her, looking all the way through the mother’s face to see her own.

I was 8, riding bareback through the woods on an old mare, grey as bark, when I came upon my cousin, who had been adopted at 12 and was then around 15. I was told her mother was a drunk, who’d  had her daughter out of wedlock. Later they say my cousin went that way herself. Where ever she is now, I trust and believe she is happy and has found peace. That day, my cousin rode Aunt Cle’s red mare under a low hanging oak and got her hair tangled in its branches. Just like Absalom had in the Bible.

I knew well the pride and arrogance of Absalom. That day, unseen by my cousin, I sat my horse and watched her struggle, hung by her long hair, red as the horse’s mane.  That day, I heard her crying for help and felt a coldness come up in me like a thousand light years of space. Then I turned my horse and rode away, telling no one until now.

It wasn’t long after that our grey mare was kicked by the red one, breaking a back left leg and hip. She was on the ground, struggling to get up, all her yellow teeth showing but not making a sound. So I ran to my father and uncle, who were drinking coffee and reluctant to come. When they did come and saw what had happened, one of them finished off the grey mare with a shotgun that had a hickory stock carved by hand after the War of Northern Aggression. Then they harnessed the red mare that kicked her and drug the grey off into the woods. The grey mare’s name was Bess. The girl was Ginny.

All the years behind me are a quiet pool of rain water. Easy now to look into that pool and see a face that is no longer mine. To notice it, forgive and bless it, to leave it there, riding on.

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FIVE MEMORIES OF A BOY FROM EAST TEXAS

Doss Texas landscape and catfish heads

Texas landscape with catfish heads

one
Raw mornings
red meat of the dawn across my shoulders.
Unsettled grackles in fig trees
breath leaving their beaks as balls of startled smoke.

two
Geese in a blue fog lifting clumsy out of rice fields.
Heffers in the pines, tick birds on their backs
calling, “forlorn, forlorn, forlorn”.
Seed bull in an unplowed field bellowing
his warning.

three
Blunt odor of rain held in the red clay
heavy in the lungs as the smell of hog’s blood.
Night crawlers washed to the surface of the road
gathered in a dixie cup
to fish for sun perch in Stephen’s Creek.
Roots of white magnolia take hold of you
try to draw you down into the green.

four
Mildew rising out of cattail.
Everything alive breathing lungs full of damp
holding it deep in the chest
as if a single breath can be a refuge
a home.

five
In every heart there is a bullet hole seeping blood through limestone.

 

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BEN HARRIS ATE HAWKS

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Ben Harris ate hawks with his jaw bones working like saw blades at the mill
where he got his hernia and earned the right to rest
from all work forever.

With his teeth too poor to be false
grinding on the backs of birds never meant to be eaten
Ben Harris ate hawks with his hat on
that blew off the head of a rich man down at Double Lake in 1935.
It was a perfect fit.

How did you climb those light poles Ben
to set the hawk traps we boys shot away later with our guns?
How could you take a wounded hawk by the claws, cut off wings
and put them dried beneath your pillow?

You could have had chickens by the hundreds gone wild in pine trees
where you couldn’t walk without getting shit at!

Ben took a bath two times a year in Stephens Creek with his long johns on.
He’d rub his chest with a bar of soap my Grandma made
out of hog lard and lye
in the black kettle in her yard
near the tree she hung her chickens in
to cut their heads off and throw them on the smoke house roof.

We had to climb a willow tree
to see how their beaks kept clucking,  their eyes spun in circles
looking for the hand that no longer held them.
The spinning of their eyes was the spinning of planets
was a whirling of stars around the throne of heaven!

I see you now, Ben, picking up chicken heads in a tow sack
slinging the bag full of silent clucking over your shoulder
dumping the heads into a vat of skinned squirrels, their heads still on
adding chunks of possum and armadillo meat
eating all of it with the dumplings Mrs. Hillendager gave you
for drawing water from her well.
She was a Catholic and you pronounced her name, “Hilldigger”.

Ben lived with his brother Rob
who smoked a pipe with a foot long stem made from some kind of leg bone.
They slept in an 8x8x7 foot shack
with their chickens and their chicken eating dogs
with  their guinea hens and the lame squirrel they wouldn’t kill
with a million seed ticks and the hoots of owls,
with pine sap still rising from the boards they borrowed from the mill one night
when the moon was chuckling in a sweet gum tree
with the picture of their Mother hung on a nail
whose maiden name nobody knew
with shotguns hung on antlers from bucks killed out of season
with the smell of Vicks Vapor Rub and the smell of woodsmoke
the smell of liniment and the smell of turpentine for head lice
and the smell of snuff they never used around Ma
and cough syrup and rubbing alcohol
and the smell of horse and cow and chicken shit
and the smell of old, old men no one would marry.

But someone had married Ben,
one of the Blanks women before the first war.
Ben worked at a sawmill and hunted possum at night to feed the sons
that she delivered.
But she died of ear ache that got into her brain
and the boys grew up to despise him.
When they were old enough they moved to Huntsville to be in the prison
one for stealing a man’s truck, the other one to guard him.
Later on they moved again, to Houston
to operate a liquor store and rise into the middle class.

Ben, I remember you saying, “No, Aunt Mary…”
while your hand traveled in an arc to take the nickel from my Grandma’s hand,
the nickel that she gave you for bringing mail up from the store.
I remember your fingers trimmed by a saw blade
and the scar across your palm where a hawk got you!
You used to take a jackass by its back hooves and hold it till it couldn’t buck no more!
I remember the hawk feather in your hat
the smell of you even pine-o-pine couldn’t kill.
Ma wouldn’t let us drink out of the same gourd dipper as you until she
boiled it.

I remember you in overalls with shoes like starved dogs.
You never had on any socks in winter.
I don’t want to tell how your boys put you in a home where you cried
and couldn’t remember your name
how they put you in a cardboard coffin without a suit on.

Then dozers came to scrape your shack away
and on that spot is a man made lake with trailer houses along its
shore.

Everything I see and hear and taste and smell is from a place carried away in a flood.
Clearcut, burned, buried in water, gone.
But I remember your eyes like my Grandma’s eyes
the color of milk left outside for dogs with the sky in it.

MY FATHER IN THE SAN JACINTO RIVER

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written for my father, Julius Richard Hopkins, Jr., in my early forties

 

I feel my father rising up through me like a buffalo fish
greasy from the river bottom.
He comes up one eyed, looking at the moon
with rusted fish hooks, cat gut lines across his mouth.
And as the moon kneels down through willow branches
looking at herself in water rings
my father sees himself in me.

I see him in my shaving mirror, his coffee jitter, bit of toilet paper on the weak
and dimpled chin
smell of poot around him damp as flannel.

Taste his cigarette breath as my own again.
Listen for and hear
hound dogs baying at an empty sweetgum tree
the moon curled in its higher branches
where a possum was the night before.
There is joy in that.

I am nine months pregnant with my father
ready now to deliver
his face shouldering through mine.
I will share that face with him a while
and show his eyes for mine.
Then I will let my father rise beyond the surface of the San Jacinto River
where the sun is risen already.

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