Sunday, January 24, 2021

Climbing ''The Poem Tree'' Again

January 21, 2021

In 2015 Libby compiled around a hundred of my poems into a collection, The Poem Tree. In all the hubbub and confusion of the past year, my copy got mixed into bags of legal work, disappearing until today, when I finally got access to my paperwork. I hadn't read any of the poems for awhile, and remembering the lost family members mentioned in some of them triggered a variety of emotions.

I've asked Libby to insert six early ones to share with friends and family. These are not traditional rhyming poems, but what I call narrative memoirs. If you'd like to read such traditional verses, The Poem Tree has a number of sonnets, villanelles, and other traditional forms.

My goal in writing these verses was to remember loved ones, not let them be forgotten, to impart a degree of immortality, through my eyes.





Country women go berry picking

             On a Friday afternoon.

Sisters, aunts, grandmothers, mothers,

             All neighbor women

Tote baskets, bowls, and babes in arms

             Trailed by chattering children and sniffing dogs

                         Into the woods they go.


The path to the berry patch is faint, yet

             Sure feet follow steps from their youth

When grandmothers led the way, pointing out

             Poke salad — pick that, poison oak — don’t touch

Save some for home, hon, eat some, pick some

             Suspicious squirrel chee-chee-chees

                         From his pine tree perch at those below.


Socializing picks up after church again

             With talk of Sunday dinners,

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy

             Green beans, biscuits and blackberry cobbler

Chattering children tug mothers and dads

             Away from their neighbors, toward home

                         I’m hungry, when do we eat? Let’s go!


Now an old man stands by a highway, still,

             Surveying, where he once lived, seeing only

Neat rows of houses and streets filling

             Empty land, where children played on a path

Through woods near home long ago,

             When country women went berry picking

                         On a Friday afternoon.


A blue-and-white china cup and saucer

filled with cooling coffee, cream and sugar

rests on the red-and-white checkered

oilcloth covering a square kitchen table.


A small woman filled with sad secrets

stands before a sink and washes

breakfast dishes, humming to herself,

looking out a window at two children playing.


The window sill is filled with three ripening tomatoes,

the clean garden vegetable smell blending

with the coffee steam wafting from the cup

and saucer waiting for Memaw to sit and rest.


Her stooped shoulders carry the weight

of her family, husband, children, grandchild,

her mind filled with memories, images, flashes

of love, joy, fear, anger, resignation, regret.


Her vision is filled with the innocent play

of her grandson and daughter, the child

of her old age, and worries that she will

not live to bring this late child into the future.


Then she girds herself for the day ahead,

dries the dishes and puts them away, hums

a new tune, smiles, checks the oven as the

kitchen is filled with the sweet smell of tea cakes.


I can hear Bebaw playing the mandolin, healthy and strong,

Sitting on the ottoman, smiling, fingers flicking for me,

His gruff voice humming the tune, wingtip toes tapping.

I can see the happiness on his round face flaring

In the yellow light of the lamp with the lace-fringed shade.


I can hear Memaw’s crochet needles clicking like telegraph keys

As her fingers move effortlessly, feeding the soft yarn

Into another warm creation of yellow and blue for me.

I can see the love in her eyes as she smiles at me

Never once glancing down to her lap as she works.


I can hear the steel strings stretching from his strong fingers

Plucking, pulling the music from inside them as

I see the notes rising, tumbling, pouring into the room

Like so many swarming, buzzing bumblebees filled with song

Obeying the commands of their master, my Bebaw.


I can hear my Memaw’s tiny voice urging, cajoling Bebaw

To put that thing away, it’s late, the boy needs his sleep

I can see her face is a false protest, she doesn’t mean it.

This song and dance they do each night for eternity

They do for me, in the yellow light of the lace-fringed lamp


I can see them.


ABOVE: Velva Marie and Floyd Franklin Walker, a.k.a. Memaw and Bebaw, holding Cherry Maxine Walker, age two, their youngest daughter, and grandson, Charles Patrick Norman, age three, at the Bonham Place, Redwater, Texas, 1952.


Anything could trigger them,

signal their arrival —

a word, a TV scene,

an odd memory of fifty years

past, like a disjointed clip

from an eight millimeter home

movie, where did it come from?

No matter. Propelled forward

like time travel, with no regard

for sense or logic, the dead

appear — Bebaw and Uncle Willie

sitting on the front stoop in

Mount Pleasant as the sun fell

on Saturday night, sipping

from a pint Mason jar a clear

liquid that made them cough,

while Cherry, Butterball and I

looked on and tittered,

Memaw and Aunt Delilah sitting

inside, ignoring the men,

sharing their sister talk,

Uncle John drives up in

his truck, loud men’s voices,

all of them are here now,

summoned, turning, looking at me,

urging me on, keep writing,

boy, someone must remember,

you have work to do

before you join us.

Pass that jar, Floyd,

Uncle John says,

I’m thirsty.



 The four of us on Franklin Street one Saturday we walked,

My younger brothers ran ahead to peer in store windows

While I stretched my small steps beside my father’s strides

In blind imitation of his proud strut I stalked.


We came upon a withered man in dirty clothes upon the ground,

Against a vacant building door he leaned with dried flowers in hand,

Twisted red crepe paper, green wire stems, not worth much, to me,

Yet my father reached deeply in his pocket, giving all the quarters he found.


He handed me the flower, a poppy, symbol of a long-ago great war,

I did not understand why he paid a price so dear and asked him.

He said we can never repay that man for what he sacrificed,

“I’d have given him dollars, not silver, were we not so poor.”


In times to come I found my father never passed a beggar by

Without sharing what little he had for a pencil, smile, or God bless you.

He tossed his precious packs of Camels to road prisoners from his car

In high spinning arcs that one grinning soul snatched deftly from the sky.


He’s gone now, my father, these many years, yet his heart beats on in me,

I try to do what he would do for those less fortunate than I,

Even when it is the last I have with none to come, or more,

I think of us four on Franklin Street that day, when I was young and free.





How my brothers and I dreaded those treks to the barbershop some Saturday afternoons!

Our father would take off work early to get all our heads trimmed in crewcuts, they called them,

the buzzing clippers furrowing our scalps short, all the same, like child inductees

lined up in a 1950’s army bootcamp.

Our father shepherded us downtown to Tampa Barber College, whose future stylists

learned their trade practicing on hapless children and poor folks who paid the token

twenty-five cents a head for whacking. For that was what it was, the misguided clippers

taking nips from unsuspecting ears, punctuated by yowls and, “I’m sorrys.”

The eldest, at nine, I sat in the barber chair, first victim. My brother, Dan, at five, and Tom,

a three-year old, sat slumped in their seats, resigned, awaiting their turns at torture and

the gallows, aghast at what the student executioner wrought upon my head. Finally

I would be rescued by Ramon, the teacher, with Cuban curses, to salvage the work

from shaking hands.

Three years passed, Daddy progressed with pay raises that promoted our Saturday treks

to a real barber shop, expert crewcuts, a dollar a head. We three sat in order paging through Field and Streams and Outdoor Lifes while our father got his precisely-trimmed flat top,

the same as the native barbers did in Manila at the end of The War, ten cents, G.I.,

with a light rub of hair tonic from a red bottle, among many, a splash of Old Spice cologne

and a dusting of talcum powder from a brush.

I sat in the high red leather and chrome barber chair, my turn, and marveled

at the infinity of images reflected in the mirrors on both walls, rows of  colored bottles

arrayed on the endless counters with the clippers and scissors laid out as neatly

as any surgeon’s workplace, twelve-year old boys staring back at me forever as

a gray-haired man wearing a white shirt and blue bow tie whipped a pin-striped sheet

around my neck and asked, “How do you want it today, son?”

My brothers watched me intently, innocently, eyes wide, anticipating my answer with their lips, my father reading about white hunters on safari in Africa, or so the magazine cover intimated, half-listening. In that instant I decided to rebel, without thought, and said, “Just a little off the sides, Mr. Ike, I’m gonna let it grow out some so I can comb it.” Daddy’s eyes met mine, alarmed, and simply said, “Crewcut, Ike, as long as I’m paying for your haircut, you get it cut the way I  say."                                     

 I took his words to heart and my brothers’ red wagon with me walking the highway collecting soda bottles discarded in the ditch from passing cars, two cents each at Higdon’s Store. Fifty empty Cokes and Dr. Peppers later I redeemed a dollar from Miss Virginia and waited for our Saturday trek to come. “Just a little off the sides, Mr. Ike,” I said, smiling, as my father looked up and saw the crisp green bill I handed to the man.                                                             

“You said as long as you were paying for my haircut it had to be your way,” I said boldly, but inside the twelve-year old feared being overruled. Daddy knew I’d called him on his word, his bond, and smiled, nodding to the barber in the mirror who stood, eyebrows raised, shears poised in hand, for permission to proceed. His eyes returned to the story of the killer grizzlies in Alaska while Ike snipped a little off the sides.

The next time I sat in the barber chair and produced my dollar he shook his head no. “That’s okay, save your money, Hoss (he and my uncles called me), I got it.” He was my father, after all, and I was my father’s son.


My father twists open his silver razor

and replaces the double-edge Gillette Super Blue Blade,

shakes the red-and-white aerosol can of Barbasol shaving cream,

then coats the black whiskers smoothly, rinses his fingers,

and carefully draws the razor from his sideburn down his cheek,

eyes trained on his twin in the mirror, I sit in silence,

knowing not to ask a question, or to distract him one whit,

at risk of causing a nick, amazed at the daily ritual of a man.


On Sunday, I watch Bebaw prepare for church, washing his face

in the steaming water filling the wash basin, holding a hot cloth

to soften the gray bristles covering his strong jaw, then opening

the pearl-handled straight razor, whisking the shiny blade back-and-forth

along the leather strop, testing the edge with his thumb tip, stirring

the shaving brush in the soap cup, coating both our faces with lather,

smiling at the dual images in the mirror, alternately shaving himself with

the sharp edge, and me with the dull, then patting us both with Old Spice.


Now, as I stare into the little handheld plastic mirror,

I see my whiskers have grown thick, changed from black,

to gray, to white. I rub the battery operated

razor across my chin and jaw, over and over, vainly

seeking the smoothness once obtained so carefully, so easily, by my

father and grandfather in times gone by, with tools of men, the

rites of passage shared and passed on, I search the image of

the man I am today, seeking — what? Hints and traces of the men

who made me — again in vain, and wonder at the man I have become.