Listening RoomThe Poet Speaks

Shall Inherit



Pale as clay they come to school
in Pineville, Kentucky,
carrying the cardboad cups
we gave them, as directed, full,
wrapped in newspapers and bags
with rubber bands in both directions.
They march to teacher’s desk,
watching a wall of crayoned squirrels
instead of us, and drop their cups.
The children–gaunt as parents are,
tight as vines, and bred from one
tough root–march barefoot
through these hills until they reach
the porch of Redbird Mission School
and put on shoes. The rat-tat-tat
of shoes on polished boards
wakes me to the work ahead–
spin and fix, stain the cysts.

I watch those sinewy children
with the sweet queerness of ether
in my mind, and hear fomaldehyde’s
weird voice say Ascaris
and innocence. One child has tapeworm,
one child has hook. I can’t tell
where leather ends and child begins,
or which have worms. With their small
serious eyes like coals, they come
on clay roads to Redbird Mission School
wearing the shrunken heads
of ancestors on their shoulders.
The ones with worms are no different
from the others. They bring what they must
to the next day, and the next.

Poet’s Commentary:

“This is another poem about worms or I guess about inheritance–who shall inherit. This is a poem written about an experience in Pineville, Kentucky where headstart children were bringing in little cardboard containers full of their stool to check for intestinal worms.”

*Reproduced with the permission of Jack Coulehan and The American Medical Association: The Journal of the American Medical Association, January 19, 1994, 271(3):172j, Copyright 1994; and with special permission of Nightshade Press: First Photographs of Heaven, 1994.

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