The Shipwreck Saga
That lousy daddy-man done up & gone
when I was bitty like a leaf in early May.
My mama cried & cried he was no good
for walking out on all of us without a word
& heading straight into the neighbor lady’s arms.
Delilah, Mama called her, & then she’d laugh
that laugh that made your cheeks curl up inside.
That lousy daddy-man sure ain’t no Samson,
she would cry. We wondered what that meant
but not for long: the lousy daddy-man had upped & gone.
I grew so fast my pants were almost shorts
so Mama said it’s time you wore a dress to hide
those pretty legs. First time the word came by
my way. Good thing the lousy daddy-man’s long gone,
my mama said, because those legs. She sighed.
Those breasts. Pretty. She made a dress of blue.
It slid on down like sky, & so I knew the world
I’d one day know: where sorrow makes it so.
That blue dress faded like a sky in late November.
Turned into a wash of blue, a slate of blue, then gray
the way the sky was on the day my mama promised
all of us would get our wish for Christmas if the Lord
kept smiling down, but since the Lord don’t smile down
on whiners or do-nothings, it was time to put our shoulders
to the wheel. What wheel, we said, because the house
had chairs & table, a stand for water from the well,
but wheel? No wheel. Baby Brother drew one in the dirt.
Dirt floor, I mean. Not there, my mama said. Out here.
She made the world inside her arms. Too late for me
to hide from, squeezing my eyes shut. Thirteen. You need
to understand there ain’t no thing called free, Mama said.
She waited while we got it. Scaled our wishes back to real.
Scuffed away the wheel that Baby Brother drew. Said nah,
we didn’t need no wheel to prove we was okay despite
the lousy daddy-man’s desertion. The Lord could put His
shoulder to the wheel, watch over us till kingdom come.
Big Girl, my mama said, you need some lessons
in mortality. You see them flowers on the peas?
I nodded. Spring already, & the crunchy ground
of winter like a word we lost in distant echo.
They be gone so quick you wonder they was there
at all. What else was new? That’s your life, too.
So make a pretty thing of it, you hear? I swore
on stacks of Bibles that I would. But pretty how?
My legs, my breasts, okay, but I had Mama’s face,
too stern & thin for pretty. Too knowing what’s in store.
I went outside to watch the flowers drain their white.
Not so quick as that, I said to Mama, going back inside.
She shook her head. You wait. I waited. See?
She stirred the air the way she stirred her tea. I saw
the flowers lift into a sudden wind, the wind go west,
the sun wrap all its light up for the blank of night.
In the Feet, the Skull, the Nape of the Neck
I put the pants back on & ran the woods,
a deer-like thing so light I rarely snapped a twig
or kicked a rock aside. Who cared if back at home
my mama sucked the air like someone hungry
for a bit of news that didn’t come with blood
all down its side or middle. The woods smelled clean
the way our hair did after baths on Saturday.
I breathed until the air squeaked through my lungs.
Sometimes I thought I saw the shadow of
that lousy daddy-man, but it was just a tree or fallen-
over tree, or sun leapfrogging in a stand of birch.
I yodeled, sang, & called my name in languages
I’d never heard. When no one came, I shuddered
that I’d gone so far alone, but always when the time
came right for turning back, I stood so still I heard
my breathing breathe, my blood rush through.
They said to call that prayer although I knew it wasn’t.
Just me, so close to all my bones I felt no need.
The Bible Tells Me So
The day I turned fourteen, a wind came up
that beat the house like fists. Then rain spat down
to turn the yard to mud, the scrap of garden
with its tender starts of peas & carrots mush.
So Mama wept. Don’t cry, I pleaded. We can plant
as soon as things come dry. But rain was all
it did for days. I didn’t like to say, but even dreams
were hard to find in all that noise & wet.
I must be Job, my mama said the ninth day.
I’m Job, you my children, & we all be doomed.
Baby Brother scoffed. Ain’t no such thing as doomed.
He’d just turned twelve, & there’d been talk
of dropping off the Baby from his name,
but names are there no matter what you say
or don’t, like Big Sis never sending any word
from the big city, us wondering was she dead
or married to a rich man she felt too ashamed
to tell about the family she’d quit: Mrs. Job
& kids. I went outside to watch the worms
come oozing through the muck before it dried
when all that rain was gone & sun came back
to scorch us just in case we had our doubts
about its power, Mama said. The worms were life.
They’d help the peas & carrots, push doomsday away.
Run Off with Lightning Speed
The snake that Uncle brought lay coiled in the back
seat of his car. You keep that thing away, my mama cried.
Uncle laughed. Took a big stick & poked the snake
right through the open window. Listen to that rattle,
he told me. You hear that in the woods, you get away
like lightning. No snake can strike at lightning.
You damn crazy, bringing that thing here, Mama told him.
Crazier than your crazy loser brother. Uncle sighed.
More power to him. He never was a man for sitting
in one place. So Mama said, He never was a man,
& that includes his you-know-what. Uncle’s eyes all wide
at that. You mean he couldn’t get it up no more?
Mama looked from him to me & shook her head
in warning. But I knew. Lousy daddy-man needed flesh
not just the bones that poked from Mama’s dress.
Her hip bones like a shelf. Her wrist bones, eggs.
I swore right there to eat & eat to make my bones
stay hidden so I could keep a man stayed put.
The Royal Kingdom
Big Sis left me her books, all twelve of them
lined up along her shelf, beside the Baby Jesus
in a wooden crib & the blue stuffed bunny
the lousy daddy-man won at the fair before
he showed what Mama said were his true colors.
Red, I guessed, because the devil’s red.
It scared me I might be the devil’s flesh
& blood. I couldn’t wait to take
communion so I could make the wafer
grow inside me, crowd the devil out.
Meanwhile I read & practiced saying
what the teacher said. No ain’t. No them
when it was meant to stand as subject.
Language had its rules just like a court.
The noun & verb were king and queen.
They alternated crowns. Then came
all the attendants. It made a kind of sense
to think of it this way. The king & queen
could multiply but had to do things just as one.
Too many attendants might mess the order up.
You’re smart, Teacher said. I told her
Big Sis was smart, & look where it led her.
You’re not your sister. Concentrate on being
worthy of your dreams, Teacher urged.
She meant for me to say my dreams. I shook
my head so hard I felt my skull contain
all it contained. Then smiled back
& watched my dreams float everywhere.
Out the long windows, up the hill, into
blue sky where clouds went rushing by.
It did no good when Mama said I had to be
another name than lousy daddy-man’s last name.
So Shipping turned to Meyer, Mama’s name,
but they still called me Shipwreck back at school
because I lived in a shipwreck shack, they said.
I didn’t care. Loretta Shipwreck suited me. I meant
to leave them all behind. At sea. With nothing but
their cries while I sailed off aboard my makeshift raft,
part plank, part hope, & made my way to shore
like Aphrodite rising from a shell. I liked the myths.
Mites, I called them for a long time. Greek mites.
Shipwreck’s got her head stuck in a book, they taunted,
but little did they know. My body wasn’t Aphrodite’s,
but it would do. I meant to keep the pretty to myself
not let some boy put meaty hands all over it.
Until I shipwrecked all my promises one summer night
when Benny Anderson came by & asked if I could see
the moon from where I stood. He held a hand out,
waved it like a wand, & I sailed out of who I’d been
into the sea of grief the gods had kept in store for me.
You let the demon rum inside your belly,
Mama said, you won’t amount to nothing
but a hill o’ beans. & then she drank her whiskey
to ease the pain of lousy daddy-man’s desertion.
He’d been gone for years by then. I knew the demon
in my belly, loins, my other parts. You keep
them legs pressed tight, Big Girl, my mama said.
But oh I longed to loosen them & feel the thrust
I knew that I’d been made for. The senior boys
would ogle me when I walked down the street
but I pretended not to feel the heat their eyes
stirred up where my legs hinged. I whistled
high. I whistled low to keep my Big Girl pride
that Mama said was all I had to bar the door
so shame would never bust on through & leave me
howling like an alley cat. She howled to show
how bad that howl would be. Set the whiskey down.
Wiped her mouth with her apron hem & set to work
shelling peas from the scrap of garden. She drank
one drink a day. To not get drunk & lead us all astray.
What Benny did unhinged my everything.
I knew the look Mama would give when I came back
across the shabby yard for breakfast in my rumpled dress.
Who cared, I thought. A body has its needs, & need
can be so sweet, sweeter even than the filling up
of need. I worked this out while Benny slept.
The moon poured all the light she had to silver up
our bodies. We might have been Greek statues
of the gods. I had my head on Benny’s chest,
my legs entwined with his. My woman body rose
& walked into the night. Stopped, beckoned me
to follow. I stayed where I was but followed.
When Benny woke, asked what he done to me,
I laughed my last girl laugh. I shook my hair
until it covered all his face. My woman body
grabbed me by the hand. I stood. Ran fast. Became.
Lynne Knight was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. Knight graduated from the University of Michigan, where she won two Hopwood Awards, and from Syracuse University, where she was a fellow in poetry and received her MA in Creative Writing and Literature. After teaching for four decades at both the high school and college levels, Knight now works as a poet and translator. In 2018, she became a permanent resident of Canada, where she lives on Vancouver Island. Knight has published six full-length collections and six chapbooks. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, RATTLE, and Southern Review. Her awards and honors include publication in Best American Poetry, a Prix de l’Alliance Française, a PSA Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, a RATTLE Poetry Prize, and an NEA grant.
Cover artwork by Mubeen Kishany