Poetry from Jon Tribble
followed by Q&A
Midnight Rainbows From Devil’s Kitchen
The lantern dims and sputters the little light
we need to wait in the dark for the lines
to pull, release, pull, and—taut at last—
set the hook and play the catch around
the other four lines waiting, their purpose
to weigh the night in against our careful
measurements and patience. A constellation
of baitfish scatter like some new universe’s
primordial moment, the crappie and shad
bumping the nearest poles slink into green
shadows beyond us, and now the headlight
floating in its foam ring illuminates the flash
and run of this twenty inches of muscle
straining against its life’s breath burning
up the blood. We’ll net and ice the fish
soon, cut the length and spill out what’s in
back to dark shelf of oxygen layered cold
below us in the table of the lake, but now
the splash and dash, the leap of color
our eyes can only hope to prism holds
us here until the limit, and brings us back.
Young Wife, Bathing
Her body is her own now
because it has been someone else’s,
the embraces no longer punctuated
with the hesitant comma,
the question mark of the ’50s,
a decade before Bo Diddley’s
then-present plaint “Who Do You Love?”
becomes a ’60s imperative,
a picket line between the old and new.
But now her revolution
is his hands the night before
on her unwrapped shoulders,
her hands tracing the line
of the curve of her breasts that was
the trail of his desire, lips and fingers
finding their way in the dark.
This morning she undresses
in the basement of the church
they’ve come to Des Moines
to raise back up together,
the black Hudson crossing
night and day on the highways
from the South, with the soaped-on
“Just Married” still a palimpsest
shadowing white the rear glass.
The sunlight slips no warmth
through windows more for letting out
the mildew and musk, but she needs
this shower despite the dank air,
she needs to know what washes away
and what remains. The shock
of the water from the jury-rigged hose
strung with baling wire above her
from the ceiling—there is a freshness
to the electric cold—it startles her back
to his hand taking hers, the ring,
the magnolias, and all those faces.
As she rinses her sensible hair,
she sees them above her.
Grimy-eyed boys peering
through the screens that keep out
skunks and other trespassers.
She does not want them to see
that she sees them, makes her own eyes
anything but available to theirs,
but she has caught their almost-smiles,
that look of need, a country
between desire and awe, an open
door into a dark and empty house,
an address their lives and scars
and calloused hearts won’t
allow them to inhabit for long.
And though she knows she should
feel something else—the expected fear
or shame or violation’s bitter tang—
what she recognizes in this moment
is the power to hold them
where they bend and crouch,
quiet supplicants before her
as long as she deigns to entertain
their audience, as long as she chooses
to not acknowledge their presence.
Finally, when she meets them
with her eyes, the blush is theirs,
not hers, and they scatter from her view
like wrens from her mother’s backyard
when a black dog would bound in
across the summer grass,
and, for a moment, she wonders
if they will return, she wonders if
they will look at a woman
in quite the same way ever again.
And then she thinks of her husband.
As we walk by the sandstone gate,
I admit you were right about this trip—
It seems we’ve gone too far again.
Goose Island long out of season,
its shore and pier empty except
for snowbirds from Wisconsin
and two teenagers working
surf rigs. The boys’ beat-up
VW sits right on the water,
its splotchy shell some great
sea turtle depositing its eggs
in the hard sand. No danger
of tide here and the boys don’t
stand a chance in this stagnant
lagoon, but they continue casting
into the black-green algae
clotting the water, cursing
when their sharp red and silver
torpedoes snag and drag back
a blooming mass. The couple
from Wisconsin has a better idea.
Lounging halfway down the pier
in their straw hats, they raise
and lower crab traps they’ve
tied to the aluminum chairs.
The old man cuts perch for
bait while his wife rotates
traps in and out of the water,
depositing the catch in a green
ice chest situated between them.
When we reach their spot, exchange
pleasantries, the man lifts back
the cooler’s lid and offers us four
from the squirming tangle
of brown-white-turquoise claws.
He says they have far too many
despite his wife’s glares; but
we have nothing to hold them
so we thank him and decline.
The pier stretches out toward
the lip of this shallow bay
and we follow it past herons
and egrets flanking the wooden
pilings with stoic reflections,
gulls shimmering down and back
in the bright wind. A fisherman
left a ray drying on the planks
and we must step carefully over
its bedeviled leather. Crab shells
litter spots we pass, green bottle
flies swarming around the eyes,
jaundiced organs and deadman left
behind. You speak of softshells
your father would boil back in
the Bronx, steam whistling from
them like a warning. We find
ourselves far from home on this
brackish South Texas shoreline,
no sense to the migrations that
have brought us here, jobs no
better than the traps the blue crabs
scuttle into—some scraps of food,
an illusion of security. Our single
consolation comes from being
together—more than your parents
had when they left warm islands
for the chill of England. The rocky
land in Jamaica, cattle and goats
on the hillsides of Carriacou
offered little promise for a future,
far too late now to second guess
if Britain, Canada, America made
better choices. My parents crossed
state lines, not oceans; leaving
the red clay of Alabama for Iowa,
Nebraska, Arkansas. Our journeys
might go short or long; it doesn’t
matter. Beyond us, in the open
water, two pilot whales breach and
blow spouts of sparkling mist into
the sunlight. Their dark backs
break the waves before diving, and
we know as we imagine maps
and routes they wander, wherever
they head toward is home. As
we stand against this constant
wind, we still know the way.
Jon Tribble is the managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by Southern Illinois University Press. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, and The Jazz Poetry Anthology. His work was selected as the 2001 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize from Sarah Lawrence College. He teaches creative writing and literature, and directs undergraduate and graduate students in internships and independent study in editing and literary publishing for the Department of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Q: Tell us more about fishing…
A: I have fished almost all my life, though mainly I grew up catching channel catfish in lakes and ponds in Arkansas. When I moved to southern Illinois, a friend, Rodney Jones, introduced me to night fishing for rainbow trout. You had to wait for nighttime since the heat in July and August keep the fish very inactive during the daytime. We would lower our lines to measured depths and try to find the cool, but not too cold, water the trout will feed in at certain times through the night.
Q: Seems like most states have a Devil’s Den, Devil’s Hole – in North Carolina, we have the Devil’s Stomping Ground. Where and why is Devil’s Kitchen?
A: Devil’s Kitchen Lake is a man-made lake created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It was the result of damming Grassy Creek in a steep valley about 8 miles south of Carbondale, Illinois, and is part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, the Crab Orchard Wilderness, the Panther Den Wilderness, and the Shawnee National Forest. The lake reaches depths of ninety feet and is extremely clear water. One explanation for the name is there was a black rock ledge overlooking the valley and cooking fires set up on and around the ledge by hunters and pioneers gave it the name “Devil’s Kitchen.” Perhaps, the year-round cooling effect of the steep valley with the creek at the bottom also created a mist that might have looked like smoke from above, giving settlers the feeling of a connection to an underworld from the place.
Q: “Young Wife, Bathing” is such an evocative moment captured in the midst of a great movement - would you discuss the genesis of this poem, and is it part of a larger historical work?
A: This poem grew from a story my mother told me of her experience upon moving to Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. She and my father had not been married for very long and they had begun to work for the United Methodist Church as home missionaries providing social services in communities with the U.S. Her background was as an elementary school teacher and he was in the process of training as a social worker. I have been working on a family historical work that would explore my parents’ experiences during the late 1940s through the early 1980s. My mother also worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.