My Mom’s Trip(s) to the City Jail

Can you see the future 

like you feel the wind

in your hair-sprayed perm

and under your young knees, 

pedaling your bike through 

a red Memphis evening 

because brother Kenny stole another go-kart? 


When you pass the 32nd pothole from the trailer park 

across from Pop’s “pretty good” liquor store, 

do you envision log cabin countrysides, 

or have you always known about

the cigarette college fund? 


Braking at the crosswalk, 

do you peer over your padded shoulders,

or do you focus on the possibility of baby powder

in the dry flowers by the bus stop? 


Did you know

you’d find your mother years later

in the bathtub – a martyr for watercolors – 

and did you know you’d say to me,

“Take whatever you want. 

You can have it.” 

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

Acute Epistaxis

To stop a nosebleed, 

you can’t hold your head back. 

You bury your ears in hemophilia, 

and I know it’s your first-grade choir concert, 

but you stain the stage red, 

protesting the black clog

that’ll hit you behind the tonsils.  


To stop a nosebleed, 

you run a rag 

under quick bursts of ice, 

and you sit on the toilet seat, 

clutching your knee. 


You can’t stop a nosebleed

when you learned to sneeze

from your aunt

whose vodka, reality TV denial

is only broken by blood vessels.  


You can’t stop a nosebleed

when the janitor walks in and says, 

“Jesus Christ, girl, 

tilt your head back.” 

Snapper Hooks

Cracking backwards

through moss dollop pools, 

heeding the push from 

undercurrents and trapped air, 

my father dips at the waist. 


Sun rays, how they pass through water, 

how they drag a brush over 

a turtle’s shell and paint algae in ribbons 

on the scutes of a stranger

my father lifts to show me.


Every turtle a snapping turtle – 

carnivores, “spiked sons-a-bitches” 

edged mob bosses of Shutes Branch, 

pierced skin and porous sag – 

my father cradles pliers. 


As humidity threatens to collapse 

over the bridge, 

inching towards ragged carapaces 

and wordless carp,  

my father allows his wrist to twitch. 

half-burned cigarette

why did you 

         always say

“a bird will use it 

         to make a nest”

when you stomped embers

         of half-burned cigarettes 

into the crevices 

         of concrete paths – 

as if any sensible 

         creature

would want to taste 

         your nicotine

               or smell the remnants 

                         or your whiskey-soaked breath?

Rock Castle

“Polly… certainly believed that [Samuel] would make a fine companion. Unfortunately for fifteen-year-old Polly, her father thought otherwise… His plans came to naught, however, when the two young lovers eloped in 1796… Andrew and Rachel Jackson had been happy to assist Samuel and Polly in eloping…” – Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson by Mark R. Cheathem 


The grass sank between

the soles of my sandals  

while we passed under the fences 

like playing a game of limbo 

trespassing into history 


Daniel Smith’s castle

crafted from limestone 

glistened in the moonlight  

and the shore of Old Hickory Lake 

sang to us, despite being outlaws.


We cited lines 

from Tennessee storytelling  


recalling the time 

that Sam Donelson

and Andrew Jackson crossed 

the river— 

the summer humidity shallowing the waters

enough for horses 

to trot across them. 


The cool Tennessee air kissing the backs of their necks

while slivers of moonlight

illuminated their trail. 


We wondered aloud 

how the ladder must have sounded 

as it brushed up against Polly Smith’s windowpane


how she grasped on to tree branches,  

splinters piercing the palms of her hands

while climbing down

to the grass we stood on.  


How the trio galloped to Hunter’s Hill,

against the light of the morning sun,  

a priest waiting earnestly 

to affirm their elopement. 


We walked to the family cemetery,

protected by stone walls

eroded by time and tourists’ touch.


Behind the unlocked wrought-iron gate,

tombstones like chess pieces 

sit stoically, 

marking each white body 

encased in the slave-tilled earth.

The Trail

You speak in the tremble of leaves,

the whispered crunch of maple settling in the grass

I hear you in the cries above me, as the geese

        are flying west.

There isn’t much farther to go, and you and I,

end here where broken trails reign incomplete.


Your soil fed by salt water, marching through your heart.

The ruins dot your highways, and no one stops to picture

their ancestors nestled in dirty, crumbling cocoons,

        sleeping beneath our feet.

Crying out from the white clay that we remade,

the red, the native, the Tennessee: erased. 


Your cedar and pine burn in cast iron shells, life

and death in the light which brands our shadows.

The memorials now are rusted steel on road sides.

        Today will never know

how bare feet beat your flesh, like drums against the earth

as the melody of the broken was forged on your body.

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN