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Tess Taylor reads four poems from her debut collection, The Forage House, published in August by Red Hen Press.
When they found Emeline, a nail
held her sack dress together
at the neck. She lived by gathering herbs
for curing leather, lived off land
her people held since they took it from the Cherokee,
quilted mountainsides in Appalachia
where they hewed walnut into rocking chairs
and sang the stony country’s blessings be
and ballads carried in their ears from Scotland.
From my grandmother, her granddaughter,
I have one word in her dialect: stime.
Long-ah, half-rhyme with steam, its meaning: not enough.
As, there’s nary stime of tea nor sugar nar.
In iron light, in the mountain graveyard
her clan’s settler stones grow up with moss
thick as harmonies in shape-note tune.
In those woods, a shadowy foundation:
They took apart her house to save the boards.
You work as a journalist, pursuing legends
of other people. It is October; gold leaves fall
before your birthday. Little mysteries
swirl with them, with you, a Tess—
hunting out a dented spoon or crest,
a half disguise by which to know yourself.
In Boston or Brooklyn
you carry some rune, afraid of a lover,
dreading the war.
Your friends barter carbon, prepare for pandemics.
In airports you watch tarmacs
flicker through your reflection.
You leave versions of selves in the various cities.
Misplace your doppelgängers.
Little Americas, discarded paperbacks:
O slaveholder & O bastard son.
O blurred stone & out-of-wedlock woman.
Reading Walden in the Air
Somewhere above Colorado, the Rockies spread like ozalids, like blueprints,
last proofs of an old-style book. Thoreau listens to the train at night,
traveling with it in mind as our stewardess arrives with pretzels.
He has measured ice breaking, is watching skitterbugs
cross the pond’s surface like aleph-bets. The Civil War has not happened yet
but brews beyond him as the seat belt light goes off.
We are free to peruse the cabin. I order tomato juice. He calls a mosquito a siren.
He ignores his Homer. Criticizes Irish laborers. Writes down the price of beans.
Deliberate puns on the Latin liber, but he claims to read little. Still
he explains how knowledge leans westward, also how knowledge is conquest.
Below, tracks mark salt flats, ruts climb the Sierra. The wing floats.
By the time I reach Donner Pass, see smoke above Yosemite,
more people visit his cottage: The woman next to me snores amiably.
At first among certain shadows
you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.
So little to inherit: family tree, tarnished pride.
A patrician lilt to certain vowels.
Real money lost, tale crocheted
in Brockenborough doilies.
Still sad alcoholic ghosts came stalking.
Unsolved, always thinking white or colored,
they slunk by, rank as shame.
Haunted by remains
somehow you were and were not
the Confederate soldiers in your grandmother’s nook.
in ripped jeans from California and tasted
their seed, their curd, their underworld of 80 proof
or no proof, a difficult nut, cracked but rotten.
Known unknowns, unknown knowns
lost/not lost like the tobacco barns
on the road South, mud-daubed life
that crawled under your skin
to inhabit ensnare become partway your own.
Ghost snippets, Daddy listening
as Scotch glasses clinked, Granddaddy
killing possums with Lewis the colored man—
You felt: This/Not this. Self/Other.
You still wanted for them to explain
their America, their prodigal
half-remembered, always present pain.
Impossible to ask. Don’t speak of race.
The record’s scratched. I don’t recall. I never knew.
Anyone who’d tell you’s dead. And: No one would tell you.
Reprinted from The Forage House with permission by Red Hen Press. Copyright © 2013 by Tess Taylor.