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READ LOCAL First: David Lee

David Lee, PoetSUNDAY BLOG READ is your glimpse into the working minds and hearts of Utah’s literary writers. Each month, 15 Bytes offers works-in-progress and / or recently published work by some of the state’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction and memoir.

Today, 15 Bytes features Utah’s first poet laureate David Lee who offers here a new poem, a previously published poem and one published but now re-written for a forthcoming collection all of which are set to appear in the collection Bluebonnets, Firewheels and Browneyed Susans: A Few Women I Knew  1948-1962 (Wings Press). Currently a resident of Mesquite, Nevada, Lee most recently appeared in Utah at the Cliff Notes Conference in Boulder, Utah with Amy Irvine McHarg, Alison Luterman as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival. You can read the 15 Bytes review by Larry Menlove of David’s most recent collection Last Call here.

Sunday Blog Read continues to accrue a distinguished group of established and emerging Utah writers for your review and enjoyment.

So curl up with your favorite cup of joe and enjoy the work of David!

*

Preacher

In 1956 the First Baptists got a new preacher
The Right Reverend Pastor Brother Strayhan until
at a later date he earned a permanent alternate moniker
from the Southern Tennessee Ministerial Seminary
who toted an eight pound Bible claimed to have been given
upon graduation carrying a spinal straining approximately
forty ribbons marking citation pagination
all the imaginable colors of Joseph’s patriarchal coat
that got him thrown into a holding tank pending reassignment
so that after he  had shepherded them for a year’s span
he took it upon himself to sporadically remind the flock
of his significance having received each ribbon
as a mark of his acknowledgement being designated
Outstanding in His Field as he worked himself
into an archetypal lather uplifting the ribbons
in his proverbial peroration  toward Giving of the Invitation
swinging the tome like a veritable Chinese New Year’s kite
above the podium in his exuberant desire for manifestation
Matriarch after services on an extraordinarily warm spring
12:36 p.m. proclaimed she wished he would go
out and stand in his field some more
she had had a belly full of him and no dinner yet already

In particular he loved to preach on his calling by the Lord
to be his Servant when he was only sixteen years of age
met his lovely wife that same summer to the glory of God
Miss Bouchier said almost out loud she allowed that possibility
all boys that age get called, some even on the telephone
but she had a premonition the Good Lord may well have
got an unlisted number that time, we all get it wrong
now and then that poor woman had a veritable passel of kids
all the Lord’s will the oldest Debby Reynolds Strayhan
not even twelve Deacon James Lee Bowen
heard to whisper during communion She resembles
a inner tube without about half its air
why he’s sure him and his Missus heard her two aisles over
in Piggly Wiggly once her feet drug so
wore out and it wasn’t no way they could count her
to be even thirty and still known it was her
before they even seen her by the slouching sound
Even though he received his ministerial salary, parsonage
automobile and full electricity and water coverage
he remained convinced that in light of his sizeable family
it wasn’t enough to get by on so that seemingly
every third Sunday the sermon concerned
the collection plate and the bread on the water
exercising in addition his prerogative to traverse
the township inquiring of all businesses
a ministerial discount and when denied stalking out
in an emblematic huff with the covert threat of calling
for a Christian boycott by all true believers in his faith
his children receiving half price discounts at the Garza Theatre
for Saturday matinee Roy Rogers extravaganzas
free meals at the school lunchroom
and complimentary family admission
to all Antelope Sporting, Cultural and Musical events

~          ~          ~          ~

And so it came to pass that on a Thursday of a previously
non-memorable out-of-football-season month
the Strayhan clan sojourned to Miss Lela’s Dew Drop Inn
for supper and stood in abeyance before the counter
awaiting Miss Lela’s acknowledgement upon which
the Reverend gave parochial noddance to his eldest son
Billy Graham Strayhan to proceed with invocation
upon which the future missionary to the starving Ethiopian
innocents opined How much is your menstral discount to eat here
my daddy says we need at least twenty percent?
Miss Lela being not a Baptist but a Presbyter
said Whar? whereupon the Right Reverend
in perfect clarification rejoined My family and I
receive discounts on the account of my being
a Minister of God of up to one half at most places
of business in this community and Deacon Eulis Robinson
one of the diners that evening rejoined in Christian piety
because he had no alternative Yes ma’am that’s a fact
all the restaurant entourage rapt and sitting at full attention
enjoined to see if there might occur on this evening in Texas
a repetition of Moses’Exodus and the subsequent
parting of the north fork of the dry Brazos river
Miss Lela said con grande autorita Set down
I’ll do my twenty percent one time

Benevolently waving away the intrusion of menu
God’s Chosen ordered tunafish sandwiches
and a large glass of water with a lemon slice for his children
fried chicken for his lovely wife that being always
in perfect Christian conservatism the most for the money
and told the waitress Bring me a steak to eat tonight
my daughter in Christ
How would you like that steak cooked, then? she said
to which he rejoined Scriptural
whereupon she replied What? he said
Well done my good and faithful servant
leaned back in his chair and smiled
generously to the adulating audience

Miss Lela heard it beginning to end top to bottom
and in a voice purloined from Job’s whirlwind
shouted across the wavering cafe
from the cash register to the cook
all in attendance harkened once again to attention
Fix that preacher’s kids hamburgers
with French fries and CoCola
make his wife shrimps and whitefish
with bleu cheese on her salad
put him a steak on from off the bottom of the pile
I’ll pay the different
Cookie said How he want that steak?
Miss Lela said Scriptural:
Burn that sonofabitch to Hell
and for the first time any one of us in our town
ever witnessed Missus Reverend Strayhan snorted
into her napkin then giggled into her chest
then broke wind into a belly laugh concerto that drew
Dryden’s and Cecelia’s at Alexander’s Feast‘s Angel down
and though the Reverend swore a benedictory oath
of clearing he would never upon his life and precious
soul enter again that supper establishment
it never hurt Miss Lela’s business not even one bit Tough

An earlier version of this poem appeared in the author’s collection My Town.

 

*

Song E.U. Washburn, the Gravetender, Heard
Sung Between the Malouf and Cummings Plots
On a Saturday Evening

many a thought shall die which was not born of dream
–e.e. cummings

                                                                                            

I remember a red covered bridge
and a yellow and black butterfly,
evening and a nighthawk
over moving water.
Her silver words turning the world
called the moon
like a great stone pulled up
from the earth and broken away,
its taproot sliding back soft
into the hill country’s belly
while that white child
wandered like the lost thing I became
alone in the twilight sky.

I put a buckle
on that moon and the jinglejangle sound
of her voice hanging in the air,
held it like a shiny dollar in my hand
one with the night
until a cloud covered me
and the moon climbed into dream,
words swallowing us
like a gush of Rio Frio water.
When we had been
all was unchanged where we had gone:
moonlight, bridge, dust motes,
butterfly,  silver river, the nightjar’s song.

*

                 Tough
Buena Vista Ragsdale
      
the dew lay all night heavy upon my branch
                                                               Job 29:19

 

The morning the mailman found her
after eighteen hours on that caliche ground
hard as a mule trail, the dregs
of dawnlight streamed up like a cockscomb
above their rickety farmhouse ridgepole
and wallowed with the blue tick heeler
the raindrip groundedge under the Texas porch
far sky still dark blue as a shotgun barrel
above where she lay in the body length embrace
of death, wash hung stretched out and starched
on the clothesline like a flock of angels
the cheatgrass whitewashed with hard rime

she fell and then waited for him to find her
through the afternoon and cold night with
a broken hip, her dispeptic husband inside
with the T.V. wondering where supper might be
until he found buttermilk and cornbread
in the cold box with a quarter of onion
that would have to tide him over
until she finished whatever she was doing
and made him something for breakfast
never noticing she didn’t come to bed

when the mailman knocked him up
from his Captain Kangaroo reverie to wallow
out of his chair and come answer the door
he said You need to get on the phone
call an ambulance to come out here
he said What for?  I aint sick yet
the mailman said It’s not about you
it’s your wife Miss Buena laying out there
on the ground half froze to death and hurt bad
it looks like and he said
I wondered how come she hadn’t made no coffee

she wouldn’t even take an aspirin
with a glass of whiskey for the pain
so she could stay awake and keep her mind
alert enough to hear what that dammed Dr. Tubbs
and those nurses might be saying
about her behind her back
who didn’t know a sonofabitching thing
about it anyway and after
the mailman offered his opinion
Like a ocotillo limb to which Dr. Tubbs
said What? She said A devil’s walking stick
just find a bed and put me in it
I need to get some rest

her husband hitched a ride in
with the mailman the next day and sat
in a corner of her room saying nothing,
like a waterlogged raft waiting
for a huge shove to get underweigh
but accepting a dinner tray when they brought it
then hitched a ride back to the farm
every evening with whoever he conned
out of a lift the seven miles
so introverted and evanescent
the nurses and Dr. Tubbs on rounds
never even noticed his presence
he made such a science of mute insociability
except to ask that the channel be changed
on rare occasions of documentary or political commentary
beyond his cognition, having as Dr. Tubbs said
the mental capacity and vocabulary
of a second grader plus the word firetruck

she lay dying through the winter
with her nonhealing shattered pelvis and femur
uncomplaining and acceptant of fate
only asking the nurses one request,
that the call switch be hung
on the toilet paper holder saying
By god they can find me being dead
in bed or on the ground but
they are not going to discover me
stretched out on top of the bed pan
when her husband said What
was that about? She said
Just shut up, your mind is as black
as a table of  face down dominoes
on top of a midnight velvet cloth
go on home you aint doing anybody any good
so you might as well do it there as here

Dr. Tubbs said she was a lily of the field
her toiling and spinning days done
let her have anything she wants
anybody who put up with that man
and that hard a life out there alone
for fifty years is a candidate for sainthood

not to speak also of the fact she could do
any job needed to be done on a ranch or farm
from building fence to pulling calves
to digging a new outhouse pit and moving the shack on
to fixing gates, swathing and pitching hay to picking up eggs
mailman said he’d seen them going out to work
she carrying tools in a shoulder satchel
he following like something habitual
carrying an empty five gallon bucket
he’d turn down and sit on
while she worked, all the time fulfilling
his self-designated role supervising and criticizing
once when he brought the mail out he saw her
pushing a lawnmower over the front yard weeds
her life object telling her where she had to go back
for a missed spot she said Get out of the way
go back in the house or I’ll mow your feet

no one in town had a goose’s idea
where she found him, how she taught
him to walk unless she bought him
a peep of chickens to be examples
or got him toilet trained, he in our minds
the veritable emblem of the reason
we invented the concept of uselessness
thank God he married a woman who knew
how a deep well bucket pulley system worked or he
would have died of thirst staring at the sink
his presence no longer a matter
she had time or energy to think about
it being nothing worth the effort

in March after almost one hundred and eighty days abed
she asked the young R.N.  just out
of Temple Nursing School if she would find someone
to go out to her house and look in her closet
bring her white longdress
up to the hospital if it wouldn’t be trouble
when the nurse who had not yet been told
arguing with Miss Buena Vista
was like arguing with an axe
asked Why’d you need it for?
she only looked at her with her owlstare
until she said Yes ma’am I will find somebody
to do that even if I have to do it myself
she said I would be much obliged
would you have them hang it up
in the wardrobe side by my bed?

the head night nurse said She would
have looked a banshee eye to eye
through the hospital window where she laid
for all those months and told him
in front of company or Dr. Tubbs
Get the hell out of here you sonofabitch
and if he had any sense, by God he would

on an equinox day when the sunrise and moonset
painted both corners of her long window at dawn
a nurse walking by heard her say Okay
I’m done with it, get out of the way
I’m coming through
by the time she got in she was already gone
her hair combed, wearing her white dress
no one could imagine how she got out
of the wardrobe closet and on her body
with her spiral broken hip
hands folded together pretty

they called Dr. Tubbs who came
and felt her pulse said like a mortician
She has expired and started writing
on the chart to make it official
when her husband stood and held up his hands
like he was exposing a stigmata
asked Is she dead then?
everybody shocked because they had
once again forgotten his presence in the room
and her eyes came open looking right at him
she said You can go home Ralph
Go home now  Now
and she closed her eyes and was dead again

Dr. Tubbs said I believe Miss Buena
would agree with me when I say
I’ll be goddammed, and no one said No she wouldn’t
the nurse said I’ve never seen that before
Ralph said I’ll be going home now
I believe she gone off and left me for good
Dr. Tubbs said I believe Miss Buena
would tell me to go to hell if she heard me say
O God I loved that woman
I would have kept her as my patient
every day of my life

but Miss Buena I want you to know
if you can hear me, just in the unlikely event
there is indeed an afterlife,
I sincerely hope we are in separate chambers
with my luck there will be a pet rattlesnake
in your room and when it finally strikes you
St. Peter will come running for me
to come in and check on that poor snake
heal it up and all forgive it for what it in ignorance did
and I suspect on my last day on earth
that memory will cover me like a cast iron potlid

through the afternoon and cold night with
a broken hip, her dispeptic husband inside
with the T.V. wondering where supper might be
until he found buttermilk and cornbread
in the cold box with a quarter of onion
that would have to tide him over
until she finished whatever she was doing
and made him something for breakfast
never noticing she didn’t come to bed

when the mailman knocked him up
from his Captain Kangaroo reverie to wallow
out of his chair and come answer the door
he said You need to get on the phone
call an ambulance to come out here
he said What for?  I aint sick yet
the mailman said It’s not about you
it’s your wife Miss Buena laying out there
on the ground half froze to death and hurt bad
it looks like and he said
I wondered how come she hadn’t made no coffee

she wouldn’t even take an aspirin
with a glass of whiskey for the pain
so she could stay awake and keep her mind
alert enough to hear what that dammed Dr. Tubbs
and those nurses might be saying
about her behind her back
who didn’t know a sonofabitching thing
about it anyway and after
the mailman offered his opinion
Like a ocotillo limb to which Dr. Tubbs
said What? She said A devil’s walking stick
just find a bed and put me in it
I need to get some rest

her husband hitched a ride in
with the mailman the next day and sat
in a corner of her room saying nothing,
like a waterlogged raft waiting
for a huge shove to get underweigh
but accepting a dinner tray when they brought it
then hitched a ride back to the farm
every evening with whoever he conned
out of a lift the seven miles
so introverted and evanescent
the nurses and Dr. Tubbs on rounds
never even noticed his presence
he made such a science of mute insociability
except to ask that the channel be changed
on rare occasions of documentary or political commentary
beyond his cognition, having as Dr. Tubbs said
the mental capacity and vocabulary
of a second grader plus the word firetruck

she lay dying through the winter
with her nonhealing shattered pelvis and femur
uncomplaining and acceptant of fate
only asking the nurses one request,
that the call switch be hung
on the toilet paper holder saying
By god they can find me being dead
in bed or on the ground but
they are not going to discover me
stretched out on top of the bed pan
when her husband said What
was that about? She said
Just shut up, your mind is as black
as a table of  face down dominoes
on top of a midnight velvet cloth
go on home you aint doing anybody any good
so you might as well do it there as here

Dr. Tubbs said she was a lily of the field
her toiling and spinning days done
let her have anything she wants
anybody who put up with that man
and that hard a life out there alone
for fifty years is a candidate for sainthood

not to speak also of the fact she could do
any job needed to be done on a ranch or farm
from building fence to pulling calves
to digging a new outhouse pit and moving the shack on
to fixing gates, swathing and pitching hay to picking up eggs
mailman said he’d seen them going out to work
she carrying tools in a shoulder satchel
he following like something habitual
carrying an empty five gallon bucket
he’d turn down and sit on
while she worked, all the time fulfilling
his self-designated role supervising and criticizing
once when he brought the mail out he saw her
pushing a lawnmower over the front yard weeds
her life object telling her where she had to go back
for a missed spot she said Get out of the way
go back in the house or I’ll mow your feet

no one in town had a goose’s idea
where she found him, how she taught
him to walk unless she bought him
a peep of chickens to be examples
or got him toilet trained, he in our minds
the veritable emblem of the reason
we invented the concept of uselessness
thank God he married a woman who knew
how a deep well bucket pulley system worked or he
would have died of thirst staring at the sink
his presence no longer a matter
she had time or energy to think about
it being nothing worth the effort

in March after almost one hundred and eighty days abed
she asked the young R.N.  just out
of Temple Nursing School if she would find someone
to go out to her house and look in her closet
bring her white longdress
up to the hospital if it wouldn’t be trouble
when the nurse who had not yet been told
arguing with Miss Buena Vista
was like arguing with an axe
asked Why’d you need it for?
she only looked at her with her owlstare
until she said Yes ma’am I will find somebody
to do that even if I have to do it myself
she said I would be much obliged
would you have them hang it up
in the wardrobe side by my bed?

the head night nurse said She would
have looked a banshee eye to eye
through the hospital window where she laid
for all those months and told him
in front of company or Dr. Tubbs
Get the hell out of here you sonofabitch
and if he had any sense, by God he would

on an equinox day when the sunrise and moonset
painted both corners of her long window at dawn
a nurse walking by heard her say Okay
I’m done with it, get out of the way
I’m coming through
by the time she got in she was already gone
her hair combed, wearing her white dress
no one could imagine how she got out
of the wardrobe closet and on her body
with her spiral broken hip
hands folded together pretty

they called Dr. Tubbs who came
and felt her pulse said like a mortician
She has expired and started writing
on the chart to make it official
when her husband stood and held up his hands
like he was exposing a stigmata
asked Is she dead then?
everybody shocked because they had
once again forgotten his presence in the room
and her eyes came open looking right at him
she said You can go home Ralph
Go home now  Now
and she closed her eyes and was dead again

Dr. Tubbs said I believe Miss Buena
would agree with me when I say
I’ll be goddammed, and no one said No she wouldn’t
the nurse said I’ve never seen that before
Ralph said I’ll be going home now
I believe she gone off and left me for good
Dr. Tubbs said I believe Miss Buena
would tell me to go to hell if she heard me say
O God I loved that woman
I would have kept her as my patient
every day of my life

but Miss Buena I want you to know
if you can hear me, just in the unlikely event
there is indeed an afterlife,
I sincerely hope we are in separate chambers
with my luck there will be a pet rattlesnake
in your room and when it finally strikes you
St. Peter will come running for me
to come in and check on that poor snake
heal it up and all forgive it for what it in ignorance did
and I suspect on my last day on earth
that memory will cover me like a cast iron potlid

Originally published in The Missouri Review.

#

LastCall-book-coverDavid Lee was raised in Post, Texas (southeast of Lubbock, northeast of Lamesa — think hot, dry and flat), a background he has never completely escaped, despite his varied experiences as a seminary student, a boxer and semi-pro baseball player (the only white player to ever play for the Negro League Post Texas Blue Stars) known for his knuckleball, a hog farmer, and a decorated Army veteran. Along the way he earned a Ph.D., taught at various universities, and recently retired as the Chairman of the Department of Language and Literature at Southern Utah University.

After 30 years in Utah, Lee and his wife Jan took to the road to become more-or-less full-time wanderers. passing through Bandera, Texas, Lee says, “We just fell in love. We noticed nine bars and two churches and thought this is where God lives.” They settled in Bandera, but still spend half of the year traveling, mostly on the back roads of the western U.S.

Lee was named Utah’s first Poet Laureate in 1997, and has received both the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award in Poetry and the Western States Book Award in Poetry. Lee received the Utah Governor’s Award for lifetime achievement and was listed among Utah’s top twelve writers of all time by the Utah Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of fifteen books of poetry. In 2004, So Quietly the Earth was selected for the New York Public Library’s annual “Books to Remember” list.

Read an interview with David Lee in the [Bandera Courier]

Past featured writers in 15 Bytes’ Sunday Blog ReadKatharine Coles, Michael McLane, Darrell Spencer, Larry Menlove,Christopher Bigelow, Shanan Ballam, Steve Proskauer, April Wilder,Calvin Haul, Lance Larsen, Joel Long,Lynn Kilpatrick,Phyllis Barber, David Hawkins,Nancy Takacs,Mike Dorrell,Susan Elizabeth Howe, Star Coulbrooke, Brad Roghaar, Jerry Vanleperen,Maximilian Werner, Markay Brown, Natalie Young, Michael Sowder, and Danielle Beazer DubraskyKevin HoldsworthJacqueline Osherow, Stephen CarterAlex CaldieroStephen Tuttle, and Raphael Dagold.

 

Join us on the first Sunday of every month for works-in-progress or recently published work by some of Utah’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction and memoir. Click “Subscribe” at the top of our page to join our e-mail list.

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