JESUS IN A STRAIGHT-BACKED CHAIR
All of second and third grades my best friend
was Pentecostal and meant it. Her family
answered every phone call with Jesus loves you!
like Jesus Himself had told them to spread the word,
starting with anybody who happened to call.
The night we all went to the worship service
I thought we might have entered somewhere
at the center of the earth, some place removed
from human reason. Half the congregation pretended
to be babies, uttering senseless sounds
as if they’d forgotten the language. Others
leapt the pews, banged tambourines, and eventually
crawled towards the altar. In terror, I began
to cry, which the mother took as a sign
the spirit was moving within me. She said
both her girls used to cry in church because Jesus
was tapping on their hearts, because He wanted
to come in. Won’t you let Him in? she asked,
producing a booklet they’d ordered off The 700 Club.
There were even illustrations – a family kneeling
together, looking expectantly up at the ceiling.
We followed along until it was sure I’d be spared
from the relentless fires of God’s displeasure.
Jesus was in my heart now and, feeling accommodating,
I pictured a little straight-backed chair
for pint-size Jesus to sit on. What He did in there
all the time with just that chair, I didn’t know.
I played along like it made sense to me
until my parents came in the morning. I was sure
they’d be real mad I’d been kept up all night,
mimicking scripture with my fingers crossed,
but there were tears of joy flooding their faces.
They looked relieved, like I’d passed unharmed,
or would, through something they fear, or think
they do, or think they should, just in case.
My childhood listened selectively
when they preached to the kneelers
of the power over us, that
sharp steeple, three times a week.
I heard a curse, not a mercy,
a control, a holding down against
the axe-grinding turn of the earth.
The universe was too much
to see at once but only the miniscule
spit of a disgusted god.
He had been wrong only once
and that was me and us.
I owe apology to the God
within the God-made mine.
I believed the wrong believers.
They spoke so loudly and all
at once, and sometimes it was singing.
Sometimes they were smiling
as they drowned you down into
the reusable dyed-blue baptismal pool,
and your white dress everyone
could see straight through to you.
SONNET FOR THE GRIEVING
Even to suffering the mind adjusts,
until it’s another dullness exchanged
for any belief in ease. Push the dust
to bed and to table, a progress of days –
the same woman mumbling on the corner,
who smokes my brand but can accommodate
God’s will or the whims of charity. Mourners
from the parlor across from the speedskate
shop trail evenly out like black ants, ask
each other what they do with the body
in a city that’s short on free patches
of dirt. A proper death’s commodity –
not counting the plastic ring of flowers,
the carved rock, the ringing at the hour.
I, their child, never having seen them, picture
their endless teenage bodies, however wrongly.
I am disinterested in specifics. I envision varying
fictions such as the spring of his parents’ collapsed
basement couch, spiraled like a tiny storm, cutting
its natural disaster into the tunnel between her legs.
Or can feel at my back the sticky vinyl of his best
friend’s backseat – how he shifted recklessly over her,
in and out of gear. His beast hands savaging her body –
and it so tiny he could have fit her within him
as if she were a child he was hiding silently in some
sharp rectangular room – less the infant they merged,
clustering human cells together than a third pinkish
pulse, a rhythm between them briefly, lovelessly,
as distant from his heart as every repetitive Southern
weekend would be indistinguishable in little time – just
as she would and any thought of this desperate act to live
at least the life of the body in a slow small town.
I imagine her holding herself still, imitating the stopped
time where nothing can happen to you – not even me.
I want to medicate myself and be gone.
I want to be healed even of the knowledge
of going. I want all pores and orifices
to seal closed. Too much steals into me.
Your name, for example, is always writing itself
across the back of my mind. It is larger
than the dogwood tree that stands next to it.
It frightened me as a child. I mean the tree.
I mean the blooms, the blood at each petal’s edge.
My grandmother said each one was like dying Jesus.
Let there be a pill like a seed I can eat and gestate.
Even if it is malignity, it will cleanse me
as it washes down. There is too much filth.
If you could hear my head, it would be a sifting
sound like garden soil splicing your fingers.
My eyes have filmed in the half-lidded dimness.
Let there be a pill that kills want itself
and even knowledge of the wanting.
The self can feed on the self when skin hunger
shudders in you beyond what loving,
but formless, gods can make sated.
It wants you, for example, and you.
Ashley Crout was born in Charleston, SC, and graduated from Bard College and the MFA program at Hunter College. She is the recipient of a poetry grant from The Astraea Foundation and has received awards from The Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation. Her work has been published in Sojourner and Ponder Review, among others. She lives in Greenville, SC.
Read more of Ashley here.