South Carolina Morning
Well, I know I look fine in this red dress,
but no one in this swamp has any taste.
I’m so tired of pale grass and emptiness,
this too-big sky, this heat as thick as paste.
I only came because Belinda Ann
laid on the guilt: “We haven’t seen you, Kitty,
for ages now.” Three years ago I ran
away from this backwater to the city--
but I have missed my Daddy, so I’m here.
Now Mama mutters that my hat is fussy,
the neckline of my dress too low; it’s clear
she thinks high heels make me some kind of hussy.
If she unpursed her lips, I think she’d hiss.
And I got myself all dolled up for this?
Yes, I got myself all dolled up for this
big party—Daddy’s turning sixty-eight.
He’s dozing, probably content to miss
the half-baked revelry. He’ll celebrate
in bourbon’s blurred embrace; he’ll hardly see
Aunt Kate’s dog shedding in his Morris chair,
Belinda Ann’s dim-witted husband Lee,
their bratty kids, my brother Al’s long hair.
I know my Daddy; I know how he dealt
with years of Mama’s miserly affection;
I’m sure he just tossed back an extra belt
the day of my undaughterly defection.
This party reeks of all he can’t abide,
so he indulges in slow suicide.
While he indulges in slow suicide,
I save myself, abandoning the heat
of family friction, venturing outside,
but finding no relief in my retreat.
I breathe in something cottony and thick,
the same damp flannel that weighs on my skin.
Both air and history make me feel sick;
I crave some other atmosphere and kin.
Belinda Ann, dear sister, grinned with spite
when Mama blanched at my V-neck; Aunt Kate
half-sputtered that my dress looked mighty tight;
while Al shot me a leer of need and hate.
I know that I should go back in there soon.
How will I tolerate the afternoon?
How will I tolerate an afternoon
of righteousness and rumours and regret?
Hell, will I last the morning? That buffoon
Belinda Ann got married to has set
his mind on getting Daddy’s ear; he’s yelling
some birthday toast, and then he yells at me
to come back in. Well, he sure isn’t telling
me what to do. I try to smell the sea;
it isn’t far, but you would never know
that wind and water move around nearby.
It’s all so still and stagnant here, below
the heavy oilcloth of this dense blue sky.
Unchecked, this sun would ruin my complexion;
this hat’s for style, but also for protection.
My hat’s for style, but also for protection
against the unrelenting glare that burns
and wrinkles you. I have quite a collection
of hats and shoes; in town, my wardrobe earns
me lots of compliments. I guess I should
have known that back here I’d look out of place;
three years ago, nobody understood
why I was leaving. But I like a space
that’s filled up with storefronts, light poles, and cars;
I like the whoosh of a revolving door
and big screens lit up with big movie stars--
yet here I stand. And though I can ignore
Al’s envy, Aunt Kate’s frown, and Mama’s grumbling,
I can’t quite shrug off Daddy’s drunken mumbling.
No, I can’t shrug off Daddy’s drunken mumbling
or his vague absence—not unlike my own:
he too has stepped away from all that fumbling
for happiness, his heart a well-soaked stone.
He numbs himself against frustration’s ache,
but I escaped and found another world,
where color, crowds, and noise conspire to slake
all kinds of thirsts; where better booze is swirled
in fun instead of fury; where you seize
the day, it grabs back, and you feel alive;
where heat comes in the lazy, lusty wheeze
of late-night saxophones. Well, maybe I’ve
deserted Daddy, but there was no doubt
I had to go—I just had to get out.
I had to go; I just had to get out
of this hell-hole before I suffocated,
and that’s how I feel now. Mama can pout,
Belinda Ann can push her overrated
peach pie, but I won’t stay to eat a slice;
my favourite clothes won’t fit if I get fat.
I don’t need their approval or advice,
their false concern, the drawl of their chitchat,
their honey cut with bile. I’ll take off just
as soon as I can manage it. I’ll swap
blank air for busy streets; I’ll leave disgust
behind; I’ll go where I can dance and shop,
where car horns blare with someone else’s stress,
where I know I look fine in this red dress.
Jean L. Kreiling
First published in The Truth in Dissonance (Kelsay Books, 2014): 44-47.
Jean L. Kreiling’s first collection of poems, The Truth in Dissonance (Kelsay Books), was published in 2014. Her work has appeared widely in print and online journals, including American Arts Quarterly, Angle, The Evansville Review, Measure, and Mezzo Cammin, and in several anthologies. Kreiling is a past winner of the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters Sonnet Contest, the String Poet Prize and the Able Muse Write Prize, and she has been a finalist for the Frost Farm Prize, the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, and the Richard Wilbur Poetry Award.
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