Shuly Xóchitl Cawood: “We Writers,” “Soft-Boiled Eggs on Any Morning,” and “The Road of Love”
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood’s poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, won the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. Her other books include A Small Thing to Want: stories and The Going and Goodbye: a memoir. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Sun, and Brevity, among others. Shuly also teaches writing workshops.
after Rebecca Elson’s “We Astronomers”
We are shepherds, bartenders,
beauticians. We are chefs
of tender meats.
We know how to knot, how to plot
the personal, how to search and rescue.
We know how to die
a hundred deaths
and still lie.
There is nothing we can’t
hook onto the end of a line
and fling into fresh water
that won’t retrieve
But sometimes this crowded world
feels lonely with its mistakes,
missed connections, miscarriages
of the heart.
Sometimes truths are animals
no one thinks to feed.
Soft-Boiled Eggs on Any Morning
They say a watched pot never boils
but I’ve stood over plenty and they always do
if I wait long enough, which I was raised to do.
To get an egg to turn soft-boiled—as opposed
to hard—so the yolk can still leak
out, not having toughened yet,
you must start with eggs in cold water
and heat them over flame in a pot
gifted to you by the aunt
who never liked you, maybe even
never loved you, yet she gave you this
pot which has endured your bad marriage,
your bout with cancer, the death of your friend
who took your hands in hers and said
it’s time to dye your hair
because she promised to tell you
when the strands were too peppered, and though
you no longer dye anything
now that she is dead, you ache for her hands
and for the smooth and scarless skin
on your chest and for the way you once
believed love was enough. Now you stand
beside the stove and watch the water boil—
it always does, it always will—
and once this bath splashes against
the sides of the silver, sturdy pot,
you set the timer, two and a half minutes long
and wait for it to be over. Anyone
can wait those minutes. The eggs clink
against each other. Steam rises
toward your face and finds it.
The Road of Love
There is a woman on the side of the road,
her car’s one good tire embedded
with a nail deflating this rubber of lies.
She’s traveled for miles
on roads her parents showed her
by corn fields, all stalks in straight rows,
through flat lands where she could spot
any town’s church, its steeple
puncturing unknown horizon. And there was always,
somewhere in the distance, a red barn with a narrow door
where she supposed a farmer would emerge,
someone who knew the land and its
expectations, someone who could recite
the weather’s recipes, who could sing
the hymn of seeds and sowing
and reaping. But now
she understands that no one emerges
from the red barn who knows
a damn thing, and out the wider barn door
bolt hungry goats and crying sheep
and chickens pecking ground for answers,
and wild dogs and feral cats who never stopped
scratching, and there she is,
that one wild horse, mane loose
because truth is this gallop
where no one needs a car made by man
and misunderstanding. Tell me
why we ever made rules
about whom to love. Tell the woman
the now-flat tire was never the good one, it was always
the others, the ones no one expected
to carry anything far, the ones who were
rolling forward all along.
Susan O’Dell Underwood: “Geometry,” “Old House,” and “Homesick”
Susan O'Dell Underwood directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University where she also teaches courses in Appalachian and Native American literature. Besides two chapbooks of poetry, she has one full-length collection, The Book of Awe (Iris 2018). Her novel Genesis Road is forthcoming in 2022 from Madville. Her poems appear in a variety of publications, including A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, and Still: The Journal.
from the Greek for “earth measurement”
for Mrs. Minto
Some of us grew up in attic bedrooms
where winter mornings woke to feathered ice
along the inside of the panes.
Infinitesimal calculus of hazy crystals,
a translucent diagram of poverty.
But we had no idea we were poor,
only cold and breathing back to life
against the glass to melt the frost and rub it clear,
to see the pinking sky inside the shape our hands erased,
amorphous in its dripping null, its melting proof
that we could make our mark.
The older view, obtuse beyond us,
lived in squares and cubes and angles.
They made us sit up straight. We learned to measure
less by slant of light or hunger rumbling,
and more by little clicking hands that measured out each day.
They taught us circles, spheres and graphs.
But the parabola of our jumprope rose
and fell untouched by math.
We tested the zenith of gravity,
never thought the line from point A
to point B might mean rows of corn and beans
our parents paced off every spring at planting time,
the grid they worked to spare us from.
Who cared if Tennessee was shaped more parallelogram
than quadrilateral? We wondered only how
we’d ever cross its edges.
Our compass pointed one direction: Gone, and never coming back.
First corpse we ever knew.
We worshiped that ancestral place
more than our ancestors themselves.
A carcass, mid-pasture without a path,
without a door, without a glass pane anywhere,
picked clean of all its wealthiest parts,
the chimney long caved into the fireplace,
the largest stones heaved out to make a raw stoop.
Inside those timber rooms,
from trees the size we never saw the likes of,
dim air lit dingy by chinked lapses.
Stair steps hung their crooked jawline,
a scaffold we clambered up
to stand and listen in the loft our parents
in their childhoods called a bedroom.
What made us stop our laugh and jabber
inside that wraith, as if we’d stepped into a funeral?
No eulogy, except the love
we couldn’t dare speak,
love despite the dust and sagging,
for that stubborn palimpsest,
the same dank earth tugging at its foundation
that tugs at all of us,
bare bones set in darkness
to teach us our own history,
left standing to rot in all that tangled green,
among the daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace,
the vetch and high red clover.
One time, soon after I was married, I saw a gravestone
for a man named Hill Hunter.
I can show you proof. I took a photograph
and hung it on my wall—a monument
to a monument which designates the place
on the highest hill in a rolling cemetery where
a man was put to rest whose parents named him
after places they loved, I suppose.
But for me the name is my life-large metaphor,
a designation for my own people’s geographical urge.
I’ve been hell-bent to that hill hunting,
even in places the glacier scraped away every vestige
of a rise, not a ripple in sight higher than a field furrow—
in Ohio Amish country and the pancaked Midwest.
In Eastern Colorado, where you first spy the Rockies,
your first sight, you’ll think
you’re looking at the bottoms of clouds, then one more
minute-mile of disbelief, you realize you’re looking
at the Plains lit up beneath horn-prick precision,
facing the relief of mountains after all.
But I could hunt my whole damned life
and never match the hills I knew and loved
when I was young, before cell phone towers
cyclopsed the horizon, and houses fattened
and proliferated and squatted to blight the richest view,
and smog yellowed the ridge lines to a smudge,
and fire and logging reshaped the knobs,
and coal-greed decapitated mountains by the hundreds.
Travel everywhere you want. I’ve been—
Sierras, Cascades, Alps, Pyrenees, the Ozarks;
all will teach a sort of grief,
like a widow marrying again another man
but waking every day to find herself still
a widow to the first husband, after all.
Marianne Worthington: "A Short History of Country Music," "The Dwindling," and "Overheard at the Dollar General"
Marianne Worthington is co-founder and poetry editor of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to Appalachia since 2009. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, CALYX, Chapter 16, Feed, and CHEAP POP among other places. She grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and lives, writes, and teaches in southeast Kentucky. Marianne received the 2021 Weatherford Award for Best Books about Appalachia for her poetry collection The Girl Singer.
Before the field became a building
(before I lost my sense of wonder)
the lanky field grass whistled to me.
My father heard the grasslands trilling,
imitated the call I heard that summer.
It’s a bird, he said. A quail that calls
its own name —
The woods we learned by following boys
who knew the shortcuts from backyards
yawning open into awnings of shade
and a coolness that splashed
our faces. Leaf litter cackled
under our feet. Under the trees
we sleuthed until we surfaced, surprised
by how we arrived behind the rec center
or at the store at the foot of the ridge.
After dark we heard a bird shrilling
the double letters of its name —
My father might call back through the dark,
singing out a remembrance in his high voice—
She is mine and the thought of her grows sweeter
When it’s time for the whippoorwill to sing
Sometimes I dream he sings yet. He knew
so many songs. I want to dream the calls
of the quail and the nightjar, for only
in sleep can I hear their music, absent,
like my father’s singing voice, spent as the field and the woods.
A Short History of Country Music
After her first hit record, she vowed
right then never to make those gospel
records and TV appearances for Jesus
if her career ever waned. Only straight-up
honky-tonk with lyrics of betrayal
and drinking and heartbreak. She blazed
a few trails and had a good run, but you
already know what happened next:
Garth Brooks wrecked everything
and all those men in hats took over. So,
tonight, in the Green Room, she forces
a smile to lift her jowls. She straightens
her wig and makes her way to the TV
stage to film an episode of Country Family
Gathering. She will get squeezed out again,
singing “Beulah Land” between Whispering
Bill Anderson and The Gatlin Brothers.
And the episode will air in perpetuity on RFD-TV.
Overheard at the Dollar General
Honey, last time I was in a Walmart was April of 2007. I remember because Daddy was dying and Mommy asked me to go get him some socks. They were those socks that have those little rubber bumps on the bottom? I don’t know why she wanted them. She was putting Daddy in the nursing home because he couldn’t walk any more so I don’t know what good those little rubber bumps on the bottom of his socks would do him. Anyway, she wanted them, and of course Walmart didn’t have them. It flew all over me, but I was determined not to make a scene in the Walmart like that time I saw poor old Mr. Moses have a nervous breakdown right there in front of everybody because he couldn’t find the Campbell’s tomato soup. You can’t find anything in the Walmart I swear. Anyway, I was cussing my way out of the sock aisle, when I saw Makayla and some man all up in her face asking about her tattoos. He says to her, “now if you need a good church home…” and I grabbed Makayla by the arm. I told him I said, “Buddy, leave this woman alone.” He opened his mouth to argue but we twirled away from him. He doesn’t know Makayla just likes ink, and besides, it’s none a his damn business. Doesn’t know her husband died when her girl was real little. Doesn’t know how she’s worked like a dog to be the best parent to that kid ever was. I swear I despise those nosy church people. Gang of gossips. They would rather preach in the Walmart and talk shit about people on Sundays than help that poor man who stands on the bridge every day with his cardboard sign that says “hungry.” Me and Makayla went to go get us a cup of coffee over at the Waffle House. I said, we’ll get Velma to wrap up a waffle and some eggs so I can pass them out the car window to the man on the bridge. I called Mommy. I told her: no socks. I told her I said I’m not ever going back inside another Walmart store.