Ron Rash Feature


Ten poems:

Preparing the Body Brown Lung
The Skeleton in the DogwoodThe Ascent
The Bridge Last Service On the Keowee
Whippoorwill
Fall Creek The Men Who Raised the Dead

An introduction to Ron Rash, by Jake Adam York



PREPARING THE BODY


Sometimes it only took a single word,
just a look if they had drunk enough.
A hawkbill knife would flash, sometimes a gun.
The doctor closed their eyes and it was done.

That’s when they’d come for me so I would walk
until I found some men out in a yard
smoking cigarettes, looking at the ground,
the women in the house with the dead man’s wife.

They’d have him laid out on a cooling board,
looking like he’d passed out drunk, but then
you saw the shirt dyed crimson with his blood,
a face as white as August cotton bolls.

We’d strip the body first. The younger girls
who hadn’t known a man were curious.
They might giggle, childish as the men
who’d brought us here with their little boy games.

As soon as I could get him shaved I’d leave
and wouldn’t come back until a few weeks passed.
That’s when she’d need the hugs, the sugared words,
some extra help with supper and the kids.

By then she’d have an inkling, not so much
of what had happened but what was to come.
By then she’d know that she would grow old young.
By then she’d know her man was the lucky one.

from Eureka Mill
(The Bench Press)
© 1998 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

BROWN LUNG


Sometimes I’d spend the whole night coughing up
what I’d been breathing in all day at work.
I’d sleep in a chair or take a good stiff drink,
anything to get a few hours rest.

The doctor called it asthma and suggested
I find a different line of work as if
a man who had no land or education
could find himself another way to live.

For that advice I paid a half-day’s wage.
Who said advice is cheap? It got so bad
each time I got a break at work I’d find
the closest window, try to catch a breath.

My foreman was a decent man who knew
I would not last much longer on that job.
He got me transferred out of the card room,
let me load the boxcars in the yard.

But even though I slept more I’d still wake
gasping for air at least one time a night,
and when I dreamed I dreamed of bumper crops
of Carolina cotton in my chest.

from Eureka Mill
(The Bench Press)
© 1998 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

THE SKELETON IN THE DOGWOOD

(Watauga County, 1895)

Two lovers out walking found
more than spring’s promised blessing
on new beginnings hanging
in a dogwood tree’s branches.

No friend or kin claimed those bones.
The high sheriff came. Foul play
he was sure, but how or why
he found no answers, so stayed

to help break the ground, help haul
a flat rock out of the creek,
sprinkle some dirt, some God words,
then left for more recent crimes.

The lovers wed that winter.
On their marriage night they dreamed
of bouquets of spring flowers
blooming in a dead man’s hand.

from Among the Believers
(Iris Press)
© 2000 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

THE ASCENT


Some thought she had slipped, the plank
glazed slick with ice, or maybe
already cold beyond care,
drowsy and weary, bare feet
tempting a creekbed’s promise
of sleep, though she struggled out,
her trail a handprint of stars
rising toward a dazzle of white
where sun and snow met. They found
her homespun dress, underclothes,
before they found her, her eyes
open as the sky, as cold,
as far away. Her father
climbed the nearest tree, brought down
green sprigs, berries bright as blood,
weaved a garland for her brow,
and that was how they left her,
wearing a crown, unburied,
knowing they’d never hunt here
or build a cabin where she
undressed, left their world as death
closed around her like a room
and she lay dying on the snow,
a bride awaiting her groom.

from Among the Believers
(Iris Press)
© 2000 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

THE BRIDGE


Barbed wire snags like briars when
fence posts rot in goldenrod,
the cows are gone, the cowpath
a thinning along the creek
to follow upstream until
water narrows, gray planks lean
over the flow like a book
open but left unfinished,
like this bridge was when the man
who started it took to his
death-bed, watched from there a son
drive the last nails, drive the truck
across so he might die less
burdened that night. The farmhouse
is razed now, the barn and shed
bare quilts of ground. All that’s left
some fallen-down four by fours,
a few rusty nails, this bridge
the quick or the dead can’t cross.

from Among the Believers
(Iris Press)
© 2000 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

LAST SERVICE


Though cranes and bulldozers came,
yanked free marble and creek stones
like loose teeth, and then shovels
unearthed coffins and Christ’s
stained glass face no longer paned
windows but like the steeple,
piano, bell, and hymnals
followed that rolling graveyard
over the quick-dying streams,
the soon obsolete bridges —
they still congregated there,
wading then crossing in boats
those last Sunday nights, their farms
already lost in the lake,
nothing but that brief island
left of their world as they lit
the church with candles and sang
from memory deep as water
old hymns of resurrection
before leaving that high ground
where the dead had once risen.

from Raising the Dead
(Iris Press)
© 2002 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

ON THE KEOWEE


Three days searchers worked below
rock-leaps her feet had not bridged,
men trolling grabbling hooks through
suck hole and blue hole, bamboo
poles jabbing the backs of falls
before the high sheriff told
her folks there was but one way,
so Jake Poston came, his poke
bulging with a snapper’s weight,
its head a jawed fist, mossed shell
big as a washpan, fishhook
deep-barbed in the webbed back foot,
the shank’s eye knotted with line
thick as guitar string. He kicked
it off the bank, let out line
like a leash as the snapper
wandered river floor, then stopped,
and Jake just nodded, the men
wading on in. No one spoke
of the gashes in her throat,
or of why he hadn’t cut
that line afterward, had slung
thirty pounds of turtle on
his back, headed downriver
to the cabin where no wife
set his table, where no meat
yet simmered in the kettle.

from Raising the Dead
(Iris Press)
© 2002 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

WHIPPOORWILL


The night Silas Broughton died
neighbors at his bedside heard
a dirge rising from high limbs
in the nearby woods, and thought
come dawn the whippoorwill’s song
would end, one life given wing
requiem enough — were wrong,
for still it called as dusk filled
Lost Cove again and Bill Cole
answered, caught in his field, mouth
open as though to reply,
so men gathered, brought with them
flintlocks and lanterns, then walked
into those woods, searching for
death’s composer, and returned
at first light, their faces lined
with sudden furrows as though
ten years had drained from their lives
in a mere night, and not one
would say what was seen or heard,
or why each wore a feather
pressed to the pulse of his wrist.

from Raising the Dead
(Iris Press)
© 2002 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

FALL CREEK


As though shedding an old skin,
Fall Creek slips free from fall’s weight,
clots of leaves blackening snags,
back of pool where years ago
local lore claims clothes were shed
by a man and woman wed
less than a month, who let hoe
and plow handle slip from hands,
left rows half done, crossed dark waves
of bottomland to lie on
a bed of ferns, make a child,
and all the while the woman
stretching both arms behind her
over the bank, hands swaying
wrist-deep in current — perhaps
some old wives’ tale, water’s pulse
pulsing what seed might be sown,
or just her need to let go
the world awhile, let the creek
wash away every burden
her life had carried so far,
open a room for this new
becoming as her body
flowed around her man like water.

from Raising the Dead
(Iris Press)
© 2002 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

THE MEN WHO RAISED THE DEAD


If they had hair it was gray,
the backs of their hands wormy
currents of blue veins, old men
the undertaker believed
had already lost too much
to the earth to be bothered
by what they found, didn’t find,
brought there that May afternoon
dogwood trees bloomed like white wreaths
across Jocassee’s valley.

They took their time, sought the shade
when they tired, let cigarettes
and silence fill the minutes
until the undertaker
nodded at his watch, and they
worked again, the only sound
the rasp and shuck of shovels
as they settled deeper in graves
twice-dug, sounding for the thud
of struck wood not always found —
sometimes something other, silk
scarf or tie, buckle, button
nestled in some darker earth,
enough to give a name to.

One quit before they were done,
lay down as if death were now
too close to resist, and so
another stepped in his grave,
finished up, but not before
they shut his eyes, laid him with
all the others to be saved
if not from death, from water.

from Raising the Dead
(Iris Press)
© 2002 by Ron Rash
Used by permission of the author.

Ron Rash was born and raised in North Carolina, in the southern Appalachians, where his family has lived for over 250 years. Rash holds degrees from Gardner-Webb College and Clemson University, and he now lives in Clemson, South Carolina, where he teaches English at Tri-County Technical College and is a member of the MFA faculty at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Rash has won a General Electric Young Writers Award, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and has been awarded the Sherwood Anderson Prize. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, Yale Review, Georgia Review, Oxford American, New England Review, Southern Review, and Shenandoah. He has published three books of poems, two books of stories, and has a novel forthcoming in the fall.