Author of the books A Wild Region and Follow Me Down, and a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, poet Kate Buckley has a propensity for darkness. In “Laurel County,” Buckley — or, in the parlance of the genre, the “voice of the poem” — recalls her mother’s stories of growing up poor: “There must have been times / Kentucky seemed a life sentence, / a dark-veined monster burning coal in her belly.”
Like the best narrative free verse, “Laurel County” catalogs the small details of a hardscrabble past that, by Buckley’s careful observation, are magnified, and become almost talismanic — for instance, the home-canned jam, “thick and expensive,” made with berries harvested from sharecropper fields. The poem ends with an image that conjures how ephemeral memory is: “You were on the hilltop — skirt taut, / caught between your legs, signaling something, I could not make out what, / the kite obscuring my vision — / the wind would catch it, then let it fall.”
Read the whole poem after the jump.
There must have been times
Kentucky seemed a life sentence,
a dark-veined monster burning coal in her belly,
the coughs that stained your linens black
no matter how many times you bleached them back
by the creek where you caught crawdads for supper.
You tell me of life but do not mention hunger,
you speak instead of land: tramping the fields in the wake of your father,
finding a fishing hole or story, and the last time you saw him,
Pappaw told you how Granddaddy got killed by a train,
cut in two on his way to the Hensley place—
this, during Prohibition, and a man did what he could.
Your mother canned beans and berries
from the share-cropped fields behind the house.
I remember the jam, thick and expensive on Wonder Bread.
I never understood why you'd fix me with thundercloud eyes
if I did not finish my piece,
your Cherokee granny's picture glaring from the other room.
You made a kite for me once, weaving far into the night
a red tailed hawk with scarlet ribbons streaming like entrails
against the gray Kentucky sky.
I ran and ran,
legs fighting my lungs—
could not let it fall.
You were on the hilltop—skirt taut,
caught between your legs, signaling something,
I could not make out what,
the kite obscuring my vision—
the wind would catch it, then let it fall.
— from A Wild Region
This poem first appeared in New Southerner, June/July 2006