Ma Tells
Catherine Carter

I couldn’t tell the girls it was too much; but it was
too much. Tomatoes pounding through
the choke of the kitchen like heaped
boulders, into the endless boiling
baths of August. Warm water
in the stale oak bucket. Hogs twice my weight
to saw into inch cubes with an old knife
and render pan by pan, breath held in terror
of flames that would mean the end
of everything, and the staring skull
from which I boiled the brains
for jelly, stopping sometimes to heave
myself weak from the stink.
No electric freezer, no electric
anything. The dead
son whose name no one spoke.
And the clothes, when there was nothing more
urgent; the patches when the cloth wore
through, like knuckles raw from the washboard.
But the flat glass pint jar glowed through it all,
gold as the gates of heaven,
sweet as a night by the fire without one sock to knit,
or with a book on my knee I hadn’t dusted
a thousand times (I was a teacher once.)
It never took much. With that
at my back I could smile,
quote Proverbs when the locusts gnawed us
to dry dirt. I got it where I could:
a neighbor fermenting potatoes,
some shiner earning his claim, and, in town,
at the taverns of which I never said a good word.
Secrets were their business:
who couldn’t bear things, who couldn’t find the Bible
enough. I kept it in my last hatbox, wrapped
in the ragbag, sunk in the steam
of the compost; chewed coffee or mint to kill
the scent. I couldn’t tell the girls; if they knew
there was this, how would they ever
manage without it? I hid it like some secret
word, some girl I had been,
I hid it hard and never showed a thing.

Catherine Carter’s first book, The Memory of Gills, came out in 2006 with LSU Press, winning the 2007 NC Roanoke-Chowan award from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. Her second collection of poems, The Swamp Monster at Home, came out with LSU in February 2012, and her recent chapbook, Marks of the Witch, with Jacar Press in December 2014. Her work has previously appeared in Orion, Poetry, Ploughshares, Cortland Review, Cider Press Review, and Best American Poetry 2009, among others, and has four times been nominated for a Pushcart—though that’s the usual case of “always a bridesmaid.” She also teaches in the English Education program at Western Carolina University, in the Appalachians. Her website is

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