Friday, March 14, 2014

Headline Poem 3/13/14 -- Born in Kentucky

President Johnson, 1964 (Photo credit Google Image)
Today's poem is inspired by this project featured on NPR about Appalachia 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the "war on poverty," depicting the 13 states in dire conditions. Now, a modern Appalachian photographer is hoping to shed new updated light on the region by asking people to submit pictures taken in 2014. The project is called "Looking at Appalachia -- 50 years after the war on poverty," and you can find more information here. This story took me to back to my own history. I wrote about my father's mother in a poem titled "A Professor's Wife," included in my self-published book of poetry Two Sides of Rain, in 2012. I thought about her this evening as I read this story. She was born in Kentucky.

Born in Kentucky

We have a tendency to forget
that older relatives
had entire lives before we entered them, and that
they were more than wrinkly fingers and
collectors of quilts and pictures

They kissed and kept secrets,
and wore clothing that
hung to dry on a line
that we cut without realizing
creating a dead end,
with no intention of returning
to the ways of them...
not trapped in a cul de sac or isolated in a cage, just different,
unaware of what made them rage
we just didn't know them
like we thought we did

Happy were the children who ran free,
and sad were the babies who starved
and were deceived 
-- young, insecure, fruitful
before we arrived

There is no printed image of her in lace,
but I imagine her white gloves
and knee-high socks,
I wonder if she had dark or golden locks,
her dress blowing in the wind,
she, shyly stepping in

Mary Jane was a Gemini, and grandmother for many years
by the time I came around
it must have been a surprise to see a baby girl after so many boys
June 17, 1893 -- oh what the world must have looked like for James and Alice Baird

I met a woman short in stature, old in words
We called her Gobbie
from Davis, California
she made orange marmalade,
and seemed awkward around babies, like we might break
how did she raise three when she couldn't even hug us two?

     she didn't really hug them
     he forgave her,
     she was stiff

Her house pristine, but cute
round, colorful rugs and hardwood floors,
newspapers on the table to catch the spills
it made her comfortable, and that's all that mattered
I have a picture of her smiling,
and sometimes when I look in the mirror
I see her bony, older face
in mine
eyes, deep, and nose pronounced

She was a professor's wife,
married to George Haymaker Vansell,
who studied bugs in his home state of Kansas and beyond
he died playing bridge
one night, at a friend's house,
and never went home
she lost a husband, a daughter, and then a son
my father's death took a piece of her heart,
and put it on the shelf

mothers should go first
mothers should go first

I think she would be proud to know me,
but I bet she'd be disappointed with my laundry skills,
and the way I cook a meal,
I speculate
because I don't really know

The younger her may have laughed with me,
and run barefoot in the hills,
sneaking sips of her father's liquor, or smoking when we were alone
she was real, but is a photograph to me,
a symbol of tradition and blood,
linking me to him, them to me, and me to them

She comes from a place I have never been
today I make a vow to smell the Kentucky she called home, 
to feel the fabric of her sun-drenched days
my fingers through her hills
listening to the songs of the earth
that was hers 

Do the trees speak differently in Appalachia?
Do the ghosts linger the same?