Thanks to a workshop with David St. John, I heard about a poet who is currently his student at USC. Essy Stone’s book, What It Done to Us, is a group of gripping, tough poems that seem to be written by someone who came up hard and made something of it.
Here’s a sample. Reading it, I wondered if the title came from the Tracy Chapman song, but perhaps not.
At 15, you are skinny & never loved enough,
with the loss of it burning you up & pounding
between your ribs like your daddy’s heavy footsteps
as he comes up on your door. You bite holes
in the sleeves of a hand-me-down homeschooler’s sweatshirt
to sate this hunger, but it don’t fill you,
a little outsider in a brown land—brown without end,
full of brown horses & cattle & trees, the houses wooden
& their tin roofs rusted the same orange-brown
as the clay & the sunburnt skin of the people who live here,
while you try, oh, desperately, to coax something green
into being, to make a thing as green & new as yourself,
or if not green, if not alive, then shiny & mechanical
& humming along fast like your mama’s Singer,
hammering you down the highway, spinning you far
past the muddy river winding like a spool of thread
along the railroad tracks, where the poor folks
of the town are baptized in clean white dresses
& the preacher stands over them in his brown suit.
You could drink up that blessed river
& still thirst for more love, you could swallow
the brown land & still wear the horizon’s mountains
tattooed like a negative on your closed eyelids.
With some burnout & his fast car, you spend evenings
at the dam, praying for it to break. Something must burst,
must loose, must free itself & carry you, but the water
holds its quiet, & in a sweaty backseat the boy promises
to take you away, & you laugh, pull him closer
against your wrinkled cashier’s uniform, & kiss him
harder for it, knowing it ain’t true.