We counted waves by sevens
not knowing which was “one”
Otters by tails, kelp
by fistfuls. We counted
steps toward the lighthouse.
We counted grains
of salt, letters signed “love”
or not. We counted
on my cold hands
in his hot. We counted
on ocean, ocean,
ocean, ignoring that
you can’t count
on a coastline to keep.
I counted his
thrusts; I tallied times
cried. I had
not one thing better
to do on the edge
of this continent than
track where the water
where thrum ceases
to have a shape
recognizable as romantic
murmur. It counted,
I try to tell myself,
this relationship I knew
I couldn’t commit to.
He thought I was
the one. And seven?
of the weeks
shoring us up:
Today it’s not perfect,
and it’s not over.
The Schoolteacher awaiting her pupils
Little Greenbrier School, Tennessee, 1910
Such balance of a building by either side of center hewn,
the walls not so much poplar as lessons in weight
or religion—how we stay standing.
Me, I’m grateful
for glass and sash replaced, my view into the winterscape
widening. I sweep the pine planks, feed the stove so that
students can see smoke.
Miles distant, they are doghobbling
toward my world, one hand on a basket, the other in a pocket
palming a warm sweet potato. If it weren’t raining
I’d be rubbing lard on my iron spade—
Praise tools and use!
I’m no preacher like the teachers before me; I’m not
latched by staple and hasp. It’s enough to board with a family
and keep the community’s pith worked.
Children, we’ll do
the arithmetic: how many of mothers’ hoecakes fed the fathers
who raised this building? Not quite a year from dry stone piers
to rived oak roof,
I watched your daddies hoist. What girth,
greenbrier; what grip, wild grape. If the swoon fits,
the sweat is so everywhere. Then savor the low stretches
of the Little River where it stinks.
Savor the hard apples;
Savor cove: say it. Send your horses that way to retrieve
a Bible-sized surface of slate for me to erase. Like the spiders
that spin in these chinks,
we’ll practice the re-do every day
of faith. I’m no saint: I make the students recite and repeat,
that they should know any one of God’s words by
its half, as in tōō׳lip.
The heartwood of church and state, I’m schooled:
Tulip poplar logs were chosen so they could be split.
Do we not construct our futures meticulously in the flesh?
In spring, the children will leave one afternoon
for months of farm chores, and I’ll tend to my own plot where
a Fraser magnolia will bear, some twenty years hence, seeds
as red as choose your sin.
Don’t hurry, dear pupils, don’t rest—
your first and eternal test in how to evenly hew.
Header photo by Ethan Daniels, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Amy A. Whitcomb by Karin Higgins.