Monday, February 10, 2014

Above My Grandmother Drusilla's Well


I try to reach down so deep years go by
before I find the bottom of my mind.

I must know how to bring up to the light
places in hell where those from heaven fall.
Blind Milton imagined the darkest place,
Pandemonium, where Juan Flores drank
to talk his way through doors into the sky,
changed his name to Johnny Flowers to get
a passport to travel alone, alive.
I listened to his words in a language
I did not know and will never know now,
its rules of speech and silence ecstacy,
nothing less. There hell was called Mexico,
where I too, a traveler, lived briefly.

Above my grandmother’s well I lower
the bucket to draw water that I spill
into a cup to drink, hauling the rest
through the hingeless door into her kitchen.

My tall grandmother could barely write her name
but loved so clearly she talked a long time
telling me stories I would tell myself
in the pasture. Reopening the gate,
I had said them so many times  I heard
the words so well I took them for my own.
In the yard listening to me tell her
my story, born of hers, she loved me more.
She told me we were born of the same earth
I would know as well as she remembered.

This life she lived was more than the earth’s sky.
The gate was closed to the horse Caballo,
who could have been any horse in this town
but would have answered only to his name.
I held out my flat-palm greeting of oats.
Juan Flores would have known his name if he
had found the way out of hell led here.
Only he knew words no one else dared say.
I was too young then to know anything
other than Grandmother Drusilla’s words.
She said, Come, Floyce Milton, and I followed.


In her country I was known by both names
given the child at birth, though I waited
seven years to see my name on paper.

By then the war was over. Now no more
saying to me, Come sit a spell with me
while I wait for the convoys to pass by
my picture window. Now she took long naps,
then woke in her rocking chair to chew snuff
until she leaned over the spittoon, spat.

Her stories no one else believed more than
stories Juan Flores heard in the hot fields,
told in bars after work and in lounges
when he had dinero to buy women
the drinks they needed to take him to bed.

In the white man’s world Juan was citizen
but still chicano to anglos who asked
for proof. He knew he was American,
in Mexico Latin American.
That was why he became Johnny Flowers,
so those who thought they were a breed apart
would listen to stories of his father
whom he never knew, killed in this world war.
Like his brothers and sisters, Juan would stay
in the fields where he knew he had a job
because the anglos who owned them knew him,
though years might pass before he proved he worked
as hard in one field as in another.
He feared the fields would become open graves.

His father was killed in the Pacific
and buried in Honolulu’s Punch Bowl,
Juan Flores might see Hawai’i later
in books whose photographs were in color,
some brown like the color of his own skin.
After Mexico, where he went to speak
his father’s language in his father’s place
of birth, though only his family knew
Manuel was born in Mexico City
that now held more people in its valley
than any other world metropolis.
No wonder Papa wished to see the rest
of the world, though he died before he could.

Juan lived up and down the West Coast, then moved
where his mother lived, in New Orleans.
Johnny Flowers arrived after Mama died
and Katrina washed away her coffin.


Four of my six uncles returned. Still here
were my father and Clyde, Drusilla’s son
who kept her alive, riding Caballo
when he wasn’t doing carpenter work.
Jess, Cleve, and Buster came home from Europe,
Ernest from the Pacific. They had wives
but only my father would have a son.

I never heard them talk about the war.
I doubt they even talked among themselves,
though Cleve knew Patton, Ernest knew Halsey–
one famous on earth, the other at sea.
Jess moved to Tulsa, married, and lived there
until he died too young. Cleve lost his wife,
the casualty of a Dear John letter,
but found a new wife in Orange County.
Buster married a red-haired schoolteacher
who already owned a house on a hill
high above Wilburton, Oklahoma.
My father worked at Wichita’s Boeing
helping to make planes to fly in the war.
We moved west and north when I was age six.

I was a baby boy when my uncles
dandled me on their knees. When I grew up
and we returned each year to visit them,
and I asked my uncles about the war
they smiled, asking me how I did in school,
anything to change the subject while waiting
to eat a meal in western Arkansas,
eastern Oklahoma . . . Santa Ana
where I refused to enter Disneyland.

My father’s friends all stayed home from the war
like him and Clyde, who was the last to die
the year I turned sixty. Back then their skin
was furrowed like my father’s with coal dust.
Richard Bartlett counted my ribs, he said.
Too young to go to school, I loved to laugh.
Bill Dursom loved baseball. Later he moved
north to Cle Elum before its mines closed.
When he surprised me with a subscription
to The Sporting News, I learned how to pitch.
Craven Harris died; the war was still on,
and he grieved that his son had been born gay,
though Jimmy’s mother loved her son no less.
She stayed beside him as he died of AIDS.

My grandmother told me many stories.
Uncle Clyde listened to her every day.
When she died, he told me the story told
to him, a story I already knew
the outlines of, that he now filled in.


She told Clyde, who stayed with her all her life,
and he told me she was a little girl
when her daddy, Frank Clifft, started whoring
on The Row in Fort Smith and her mother,
Pearl Taylor, daughter of the Cherokee
and born in Tahlequah, took her daughter
with her when she went to hear the singer
on horseback, his Spanish guitar over
one shoulder and a sheaf of his own songs
to sing in Witcherville or Huntington.
or in Mansfield or Paris, Arkansas,
where Pearl fell in love with Manuel Romain,
his name was, where Drusilla played alone
in the garden with the flowers and rocks,
always outside but beside the hotels.
Once the weather turned humid, her mother
was soon big with child. When Pearl’s stillborn son
was buried, their mother shared the same grave.
Drusilla told this, Clyde said, with sadness
bordering on disgust once her father
rode off, God knew where, after he gave her
to his brother and Pearl’s sister to raise.
She grew to be the woman Drusilla
who met Abraham, from Virginia.
She said when he married her she felt free
to love for the rest of their lives Tom Clifft,
her double cousin; she swore double cousins
were closer than sister and brother.
Like Abe and his brothers Rich and Dave–though
not brother Ira in New Orleans–
Tom brought home, where only he would live now,
blue slivers of coal buried in his flesh.


And what of Juan Flores? Did he know more
than I from his traveling up and down
the Pacific and inland to find work?
We congregated at Stockman’s Café
at dawn where I lived. Field bosses came by
to choose among us, haul us to orchards.
All day we picked fruit from tall spike ladders
lashed to the top by leaning on branches
strong enough to hold us where sky began.
We climbed there to strip all that had ripened,
working endlessly until the bosses
came to declare the working day over.
The night at hand, a high-wire act in town,
we could learn more about courage at heights
we sensed must soon become second nature . . .
although I possessed bravado only,
not enough to work there year after year.

Years diving, always failing to go deep
enough to bring up the coldest water
I still love to splash on my face and go
to make love with my pen, her olive skin.
Now Cathleen keeps me alive, for she knows
I perform what I promised our first night
in my houseboat. She spied Malcolm Cowley’s
Exile’s Return, and after I read some
aloud, we loved in bed. Downtown later,
we closed the Downbeat Cabaret on Third
and Yesler, Pioneer Square, the only
white kids dancing in the midst of black souls
. . . one way to remember the steps I took
to Drusilla's stone-cobbled, back-porch well.

(1-22 December–5 January 2011; revised, 8, 10 February 2014)

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