Poetry by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, Susan O’Dell Underwood, and Marianne Worthington


Photo by Appalachian Places staff

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.

We Writers

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

a wriggling,

shimmering belief.


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.

Geometry

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.

Old House

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.

Homesick

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.

The Dwindling

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 —

Bob-White

Bob-Bob-White

Bob-White

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

Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will

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.