Tara Bray

Five poems from Sacred Dirt

The Road

When the streets of Jakin, Georgia converge,
provide escape, the boys become a band
of crows with dandelions for wings. The road
screams because these crows, struck with the urge,
can't fly, their feathers weightless puffs of seeds.
The road to Jacksonville is just a trick
that teaches the boys of Jakin to turn back,
stay home, shut up, keep their antsy caws
to themselves while Tallahassee, Baton Rouge,
and Nashville, Tennessee turn to pale white
strokes inside their throats, hints of moonlight
given to any stretch of battered ground
or street or dead highway where boys roam,
planning lives they can't cough up.

Little Rubin Attempts College

Needing the solid ground beneath his feet,
he walked the rural roads so he would not
backslide. He cried each time someone from home
joined the other side, stole a sip
of alcohol. When their sips turned into nights
of drunkenness, he couldn't get out of bed
for hours. But walking kept his focus on
the Lord, until mesmerized, he neared
a black snake on the roadside, freshly dead
and still as his sleeping father's arm. He stroked it,
singing Oh Lamb of God, his tears slipping
to the black tar, soft from the stinging sun.
He lifted the snake and found
a place for it in the shade of his despair.

Little Rubin Attends His First Foot Washing
At Victory Mill Church of God

No, his mama said he couldn't go,
the mill church outside town drew the ones
who practiced foolishness, spoke the wild
tongues, grew crazed enough to touch
the cold skin of the dead at funerals.
A fire deep within ordered him
to defy his mama's will. He told himself
he'd take any pain she might deliver
for his wrong as he slipped off to find
his way. Once inside those stone walls,
the usher called for Old Man Oliver,
who had one good leg and a stump, paired him
off with Little Rube. Washing him
scared everyone. That foot brought on a dread
so fierce, those old toes may as well
have spouted dirty ditties, dreaded hymns.

But Rubin took the cloth.
Hesitant at first, he used both hands;
it took a lot of strength to reach the pink
beneath the dirt. Old Man Oliver winked
and offered him a special deal--two for one.
He went to work on Rubin's feet.
"Son, I'll make you a little heaven on earth.
You're going to feel Sweet Jesus in your bones
and then you'll kneel a new man, perfect
for the Lord to use." He knew just how
and where to rub, and for a moment Rubin
didn't care about the dirt-gray water
in the pan, the gritty feel of it,
the sour stink of Oliver's tired life.
For an instant, the spirits washed over him,
like angels old as dirt, sent down
to comfort fields of believers on the edge of town.

After Hurricane Ruth, Brother Jim
Explains to Little Rubin How to Make
Good Use of a Storm

The best time to write a sermon's before
a storm--the trees bowed over, full
and quivering with holy fever, all
the birds skittering mad with fear.

God's words will toss inside your head like seedlings
helpless in the wind until you've found
a way to lift them up and write them down
as prophecy so others will crave the king

that touched you in the storm and made you burn.
This life will come down hard on you and knock
you to your knees. The Lord will smile and walk
away. Left to mend yourself, you'll learn

the broken body is your sermon, crying
over the town like rain. Your eyes must bear
the darkness of the clouds. Fix your stare
like trees rooted in the soil, rising

in spite of wicked gusts. Let the news
sting the listener's ear like shocks of hail,
your body's fury making sinners pale
to pure repentance as your torso moves

like a dreaded fit of wind across God's stage.
Lift your hands and jerk them low. Ease
out the hurt you cage inside, squeeze
your fists to show how close love is to rage.

Rubin's Confession

Mama said there was no sin in swimming
with the distant sex, but Brother Jim forbade
such commingling, said the Good Lord made
us for bringing glory to Him, not for dimming

his light with temptation. Kissing, he said,
looked too much like chewing and proved a hunger
for God was at the root of a sinful bed
where naked fools tried to feed on each other.

Mama said getting close like that with a girl
would be sweeter than sweet. I wasn't sure
who to believe, until the furious stir
inside began to ache and burn, and a girl

took my hand to her softest skin. Revival
week, they herded us to a bonfire
in the yard to confess all sins of the sexual
kind on paper plates. We folded our desire

into small squares, tossing it to the flame.
No one knew my sins were so much more
than fantasies, how later that night I'd pour
myself a little beer, call my girl's name,

tasting her like bread on my tongue. Deliver
me from evil, I'd pray, fully aware
I'd join the sweet sin begging me to enter.
It's a secret I've kept all these years. Prayer

never erased what I did. I paid the price
when I walked away, denied my own hunger,
leaving the touch that made me tremble, the wonder
on her face. My own open arms, the sacrifice.

All poems © 2003 Tara Bray

Tara Bray's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Puerto del Sol, Atlanta Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Many Mountains Moving, Green Mountains Review and Crab Orchard Review. She is in her final year at the MFA program at the University of Arkansas where she holds the Walton Fellowship in Creative Writing.