by Susan Lefler

Aunt Bess wore no underwear
beneath her feedsack dress.
When she stood in the sun, 
you could see right through.

I would walk down the dirt track
past three tobacco barns to the porch
where she sat awash with the bruised
smell of ripe gardenias. Huge bushes,
marooned in galvanized tubs, dotted
the bare yard. I would take down her hair,
brush and braid the waist-length mass,
while she told how she poured Red Devil Lye
on a wart, when she was small, and burned it off.

At twenty, Bess married the hired hand,
a coarse-faced man called Uncle Tom
who kept his razor strap by the door, and once
he pulled me onto his lap and pawed
at my leg. I stayed away from him after that,
except when he lowered the bucket into the well,
reeled it up and handed me the gourd,
sloshing sharp-tanged water on my feet. 

They never had children.

At fifty, Aunt Bess chased her sister
around the room with a butcher knife.
They sent her to the asylum where she stayed
ten years. She never told me that story.
Or how she got cured and came home

to ripe gardenias, and Uncle Tom’s
pig-eyed squint, and the mad old rooster
who patrolled the broom-raked yard.

Susan Lefler lives in Brevard, North Carolina. Her poems have appeared in journals  including The Lyricist, Icarus, Appalachian Heritage, Pinesong, Asheville Poetry Review, Wind, Passager, Main Street Rag, and Kakalak. She is the managing editor for Smoky Mountain Living magazine.

About Bess—“Bess” grew from a class exercise that resulted in a flood of childhood memories. Otherwise, poetry seems to emerge from floods of various sorts: when life knocks you in the face; when an event is so extreme or so lovely you must grapple with it. My courage as a poet, such as it is, has come from exposure to grown-ups both living and not. They include William Stafford, David Wagoner, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Cathy Smith Bowers among others. The world invites us to respond. Our mentors invite us to respond. When we are children, we never hesitate based on the notion that our response must be worthy in some way or memorable. I try to hold Stafford’s brilliant and immediate truths in my heart. A poem is what emerges, much like a dream. You can learn the craft, must learn the craft, but you bring your perfectionism and angst into it at your peril. Most of all, as Roethke reminds us: “poetry is an act of mischief.”  You must never stop laughing (or dancing).

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