Monday, April 30, 2012

30 of 30 Elegy for Joyce Mcginnis

It was a funeral year,and a terrible church.
the preacher had an altar call in the middle of the service
as though this was the ideal time, to hammer us
with that threadbare, impoverished faith, worn carpet on the altar
a pair of yard-sale plaster praying hands atop a speaker,
a paint-on-velvet Jesus, and I was young enough to be embarassed

By the Appalachian wailing in the funeral home,
the collapsing and being escorted outside, the coffee can of cigarette butts
the beige shirts and colorful ties, the kentucky drawl of the preacher
I have never felt more northern, more Catholic, more outside
than that room, the women red-faced, collapsing
My own calm in the face of their grief.

You were born again, but I knew your stories,
the woman shot through the barstool
Red's blood clot and the bullet that cured him,
Your prison time the family secret
knew of your bike, your studded belt that spelled your name
your racist dolls, dirty books, knew the cackle of your laugh
your smoking cigarettes with an oxygen mask,
planted lillies in your lawn. Stared at the Mack truck tabletop lighters
the apple-head dolls, turned over  the plaster frogs with human genitals
near your stagnant birdbath, knew the smell of your backyard goat
a picture of a man with elephantisis, carrying his balls in a wheel barrel:
But you did not know me, called me "Chuck", called me "Chad",
Called me "Neva's Baby" when I was fifteen,
though you had embroidered names on my cousin's woolen jackets
always more interested in your own stories.
My mother and her sisters were charmed by you,
like mice by a snake, they needed the your gaze
even if you only saw your own reflection in their eyes
the children that you left, again and again
that gaggle of garrulous sisters at your dying bed
who did not seem to notice that you did not love them.
who dutifully ate the 7-up cake, the ham left warming for them
that you never bothered to wait for their arrival to eat
on the holidays we drove across two states to your home and car dealership
to eat your leftovers, to slip off and read the black books upstairs, to steal whiskey from your bar,to spin until we fell

When you died this was my inheritance, a rack of pipes that no one smoked
a set of books in black covers, with pentagrams on the back. a collection of stories
of a woman that I never knew, a memory of the sting of stolen whiskey.


  1. Altar calls at funerals... happened at my great grandma's, as did a message in tongues, and I, a lifelong Pentecostal steeped in Appalachian religious traditions, I still remember feeling embarrassed at how inappropriate it seemed.

  2. It is pretty common, really. Having let this poem sit for awhile, it seems clumsy to me..I think I was just tired from my long run of elegies, and I dunno, weirded out by the knowledge that somehow, this year was the year my family decided to look over my shoulder for my 30/30. Maybe it can be saved, I don't know...I am heartily sick of these elegies right now