She could not sleep. Therewhen evening mushroomedthrough the porchwood, the spiderlegsof light spread out across the hollow, poplar cups clutching each stray webstrand,
she could not sleepwithout thinking of the pine barn leaningtoward the valley, of the creekbedfilling with iron, lime, and mouse bones. And Eli, gone to the coal camp just one week.
That week roils forward heavy with storm,each day whipped into a frothy pool of half-night:
she hears the air chewingthrough her sleep creaky with rockingback and forth, forth and back, sees the green eyeshine of an owl blink from the birch.
If it flies left of the house: withered crops, spoiled eggs.If it flies right: healthy children, no corn mold, Eli in November.And should she fly directly over: a loss, a cave thick with water, a slab of bedrock sunk beneath a lake.
Her wingtips drag like rain over the roof edgetouching both eaves at once, and Ora knowsthe shade as a sadness gloaming inside her home—a family of quail scuttling into the thicket. [End Page 476]
They say children born on the wrong sideof the river grow wild as fleabane and do not return until Spring,their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,
and that wild scuttles straight from their eyesover the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet into the sandstone,
A mother cannot look at them directly—their pupils might crumble like dry mud under a thumb.
But Ora could not get to the other bank for the flood washing the river’s cobble and the mussels loose from their shellsand her husband gone to the coal camp.
So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox, her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.
Salt of the Earth
I like my jobnot the mineI like howthe carbide lampspoils lighton the coal facethat goes downdown, down
Cool smellof wet claygrit of sandstone undermy boot goingdown, downdown
I like to bea breathin the rustleof the mine’scave and feelthe givebeneathmy wedgehear the chunksrattle down,down, down [End Page 477]
The coughI carryin my lung thethin way Itake my airI don’t mindmuch when I’m downdown, down
because each roomcollectsthe dust of whereI’ve beeneach columnsilts my lipsmy coughslips outon all foursand crawls downdown, down
But to watcha place you loveget gone.
To be the manwho does it.
When the cow dies, Ora touches her five children,their mouths wide as magnolia blooms, holesfor which there were never enough rabbits to shoot and skin,or river mussels from the sycamore shoals.
The hush becomes the weather rushing through that holler,their empty stomachs the last leaves rimed with frostbecomes what the weather rushing through that holler tells her:Find a hickory tree scabbed over with moss
among timber fires in their stumps that smolder on the hillsidelike the burning oil of many lamps.Even a foaming wild dog cannot drink the water it findsin a winter dark as the blue flame of black damp.
It is part of my work as a folklorist and poet from Kentucky to engage with that challenge of discovering where I personally fit into a place between two worlds—one of academia and one of my family roots. I struggle with these concepts as both a folklorist studying and a poet writing about my family. I am less inclined to conduct extensive ethnographic research on my family (due to the obvious challenges that come with it, and that come with my family thinking the college-educated grandchild needs to get a job), though I have conducted some oral histories with them. My primary fieldwork [End Page 478] related to Appalachia thus far...