Poems from Alum, by Shelly L. Hall
My friend and fellow poet Shelly Hall passed away on Sunday, June 13, 2010, a victim of pancreatic cancer. She was 52 years old.
If you ever heard Shelly read, you know what a joy it was, how her genuine, unaffected delivery carried the music of her words. She had a knack for sizing up an audience, gauging her own mood, and choosing a poem on the spot to best match the two, then delivering that selection flawlessly, buoying her listeners on the current of her art.
I originally met Shelly at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets’ spring 2005 conference. It was her first WFOP conference, my second, and she and Mary Ann Mitchell suggested that we form a poetry critique group. We began meeting two to four times a month after work, road-tripped to conferences and readings together, celebrated one another’s publications and awards, and generally supported each other in our lives as well as our art. We called ourselves Poetryst.
About a year ago, after her cancer diagnosis, Shelly turned her attention to finishing a major book of poetry entitled Alum. Sensing her mortality, she intended it as a magnum opus. As Poetryst, we completed the editorial work on that book a few weeks before Shelly died. I’m honored to have been a part of that effort with her and Mary Ann, to publish the collection through Popcorn Press this September, and to share a handful of poems with you here.
In water treatment, alum is used as a coagulant, which binds together very fine suspended particles into larger particles that can be removed by settling and filtration. In this way, objectionable color and turbidity (cloudiness), as well as the aluminum itself, are removed from the drinking water.
Schoolday remembered is a dawn
delicately flamed, patina’d humane
as a black-and-white photograph
decades in the attic as though time is
being drawn a different direction.
Not exactly backwards but crosswise,
towards a destination that is only now
achieving you here as your fingers
mouthing these letters on this paper.
Though in themselves not at all
like that earliest morning sun, still
the words draw together—here
now—the same way that quietcy
of first light would loose itself into ivory,
into haze, into the sleek cars full of
the latest Bluenote and Motown crooning
between the newsweather&sports
as though daily clarity was their work.
From the self-consciously new red brick
of the Phyllis Wheatley Day Care, to which
you are driven each weekday morning,
you walk to George Washington Carver Elementary.
Your school is a one-story poor relation
to cathedrals, is cavernous halls of high-gloss tile,
glass doors at all ends, the outdoor light
always pressing against them.
It is a place where what is learned for keeps
is what comes in “despite,” beams through
the doorglass, down the deepest halls, just for you,
as a fond delight, renders the corridors
an endlessly cradling shade in which can be
perfectly seen the pure contrast of ceiling
and floor, of color and shape, of outside and in.
The field-trip to the water-treatment plant is caverns
of pipe, cloistering shadow, rows of processing vats
each with its proper portion of Lake Erie, its own stage
of purification. The one that fills still your mind’s eye,
(a tall clear glass from which you occasionally sip),
is the tank where the raw water is deposited for de-
sedimentation by addition of powdered alum.
Explaining the process, your guide hands you a rock
of the mineral to examine, touch with just the tip
of the tongue. Part chalk it is, and part strong citrus—
both the juice and the rind. You can still feel how
even the least brush of flavor causes the mouth to pull
in on itself, makes it self-evident how alum can draw
all the opaque unpotables down, leaving the water
buoyant above, and lightened enough to discern
the sediment now quietly yellowed on the bottom,
to reveal the faint ivory haze of clarity still to come.
My first dog was a mutt, white with big black spots.
I named her Coco. I got her for Christmas
and that summer she was hit by a car.
I still see the blood that came out of her mouth,
such a bright surprise of red. Not much
but more than enough to remember by.
Coco was dead by the time we got to the vet
so we took her, daddy, mommy and me,
to the open-pit incinerator.
There was a low curb at the edge of the hole.
Daddy took Coco, still in the rug we'd wrapped her in,
to the very edge of that pit,
braced one foot against that curb and threw.
I watched her soar up and out
then down, forever. It was a good throw.
Daddy in his white t-shirt, still young enough
to throw like that without strain or stumble.
It was a good throw; no smoke
or flame, no smell, or crackle, or roar.
Daddy moved out when I was five.
I cried once, that day, a few minutes.
Then I helped him pack and move.
I wore my yellow pedal pushers with the matching top
to pack his U-haul and move him out of my house.
Yellow is daddy's favorite color.
I was so grown up that day and every day
after; nothing crackling or roaring. Nothing
but the cool quiet under the cartoons, under
mommy very busy in some other room. Under
the songs on the 45's I learned to pick out
and put on the box and sing along with all by myself:
“Saint James Infirmary,” “Busted,”
“Walk Right In, Sit Right Down,” “Kiddio,”
“Heatwave,” and “Cool Water.”
So close to storm the crows glow
the way truest black alone can, true
with live blood, with long blue flight
over fields too wild yet for sow-seed
The way truest black alone can
so love each wave of light, bare it
over fields too wild yet for sowing,
is as much calm as it is shock.
So, love each wave of light, bear it
from corona to root, to love
as much calm as shock
for the crow as for the sower
From the crown to the root, love
and planting will yet strike a path
for crow as for sower.
May, dark earth in planting wrapped
will yet strike a path true with
live blood, with long blue flight
with exhilarate May-dark earth, rapt,
so close to storm the crows glow.
you say, burn
acidic as the belly
unfed, etch you
into a wanting true
enough to kill you
The awful silence of pure
light? Poetry of smoke
and ash? Most days you
have no choice but to
choose one, not the other
you curve the small
of your back, light
and air will be equally
will see and hear you
Only in your mind, your grief
is there sense enough to trust
there is at least one thing
about you that can be gift, teeth
unclenching just before the wounds
mortal, while there is still breath
enough for air, tears enough to
tide you out under the undulate
belly of heady horizoning wind—
then return you to that shore
with at least as much cradled
in your mouth as leaving tore away
In the shower, the water holds
the heat all over your skin and you
remember what it’s like to believe
yourself not untouchable
to the coffee house to write, to worry
the words that won’t show themselves
in the cold; you drink a small cocoa
are stubbornly surprised by how
quickly warm things cool—this
your justification for opening again
your mouth, cupping your hands
This is not the hand that inquires
but the one that leads you
to a fallowed plot
demands you get to the raw
dirt of the thing, the stuff
that coats skin, shirt, hair
as though you were a seed
unsure which direction to send
No matter where
you reach, how far you extend
the hope of your need,
you are remembered