Elmwood Park, Columbia, SC
At the house on Gadsden Street,
the smell of damp earth
wafted from cracks between scarred
nothing but five feet of dank air
between us and the dirt,
the yard sloping down to a dead-end
road guarded by a mean dog on a chain,
abandoned fields overgrown with kudzu,
railroad tracks rattling the bones
in the old cemetery filled with the city’s finest
buried atop the graves of the formerly enslaved
along with inmates, soldiers, asylum patients,
their plots forgotten, bulldozed
to make way for the highway backfilled
with a palimpsest of human remains.
We could see the headstones out back
when the Spanish moss went gray
and the live oaks shed
their red and yellow leaves
and I often wondered if the dead
resting on the other side of the ridge
seeped up from the disturbed land
to pass through our house—
the dark outline that rushed past my bed,
the lady in a long white dress
who woke my toddler one night—
though later I came to believe
the source of the haunting
When we remodeled the kitchen there was a pit
where the dinner table used to be:
musty wooden ribs and rotting beams,
joists about to give.
We covered the maw with a tarp
but I couldn’t sleep with a hole
in the heart of my home.
I kept remembering that winter
when I didn’t think I could go on
with you, like this—how everything
buckled and collapsed.
How we almost quit.
For my great-grandmother
She learned early
there was no use asking why
her parents were so much older than the others, why
she couldn’t see herself
mirrored in their features
no matter how she tried.
She knew some questions are best abandoned,
a farmer’s bride with poor teeth
and tuberculosis in her spine,
the same exquisite face
as my grandmother—
sculpted cheekbones set up high,
cupid’s bow lips, and sloe eyes—
unpinning laundry from the line,
cooking supper from the Depression garden,
plucking tomatoes from the vine
wiping her brow, sweating through
her hand-sewn dress,
the day so hot she feared
the fields would burst into flame
when the burnt umber sun sank into the horizon
undulating with cornstalks
grown six-feet high by July.
There’s a bone in my knee—
her response to all the unanswerable questions.
How did the baby get in your belly?
Why is the sky blue?
Where do we go when we die?
There’s a bone in my knee—
a kind of subterfuge
but also a kindness:
solid, flesh-covered, something
a little girl could lean up against
sitting on the front stoop,
small hand cupping
this secret wisdom of her mother’s body,
the two of them
together in silence
on the threshold of night.
Therese Gleason is author of two chapbooks: Libation (co-winner, 2006 South Carolina Poetry Initiative Competition) and Matrilineal (Honorable Mention, 2022 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize, New England Poetry Club). Her poems appear in 32 Poems, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, New Ohio Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rattle, and elsewhere. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Therese lives in Worcester, MA with her family. A dyslexia therapist and reading interventionist, she teaches multisensory structured literacy at an elementary school, and is a poetry editor for The Worcester Review. Find her at theresegleason.com.