Cardinal Points

by Eugene Haun, "Cardinal Points and other poems", Lotus Press, Detroit, 1981

North is always on my left.
Town is down that way, not far.
(We built here a long time ago.)
It's only thirteen blocks to the river
And the railroad tracks and the stations:
Missouri Pacific, Rock Island, Cotten Belt.
Pahpaw comes home from there; he built them.
He and his brothers and his father did all the woodwork.
And Undle Mike put in the wiring when they changed from gas,
And Uncle Johnnie is conductor on the St. Louis run,
And sometimes goes clear up to Chicago, where their cousin
Carved the big statues all along the Lake.

And I run all the way down the brick walk
And through the wrought-iron gate at the foot of the terrace
And onto the concrete sidewalk which Uncle Dot laid down,
When I hear Pahpaw whistle.
And he grabs me and throws me up in the air
And turns me upside down and spanks me
While I yell and squeal,
And he settles me so I straddle his neck,
And we roll under the sycamore
Which was there when the street was laid
And turn when we get to the two elms on either side
of the carriage-block betwen the trees.

And I ride like a rajah on an elephant
Up the bricks under the cedars past the sword plant,
And Mahmaw says, "Mr. Niehaus, one
of these days you're going to drop that child,"
And he says, "Now, Viola," and puts me down.
And I run down the long hall through the house
And struggle to tip the big pitcher of cold water
Until he comes to help me and takes off his shirt.
He snorts into the basin, and throws water all over his body,
And I get to scrub his back, smooth and white as a girl's,
But I can feel the big muscles stretching and bulging.
I won't lift the lid off the garbage-can and turn my nose
Away from the dog's breath, but I love the way he smells:
Turpentine and sweat and Bull Durham Tobacco
In a little white sack with the tag
Hanging out of his hip-pocket,
And his hammer swinging on his right leg,
And his yellow ruler folded in a slot-pocket on his left thigh,
And he smells better than anything in the world.
The women never come on the back porch until we finish,
And I turn the hose all over him to get the soap off,
And Mother calls from the kitchen,
"Papa, his nice clean clothes will get soaking wet,"
And they do, and we don't care.
I lather up his mug, and he shaves
And dresses in his white cotton shirt and wool trousers,
And we go into supper smelling of Bay Rum.
He's rich, but he works.

South is always on my right, where Mahmaw planted
The wisteria vine on the day when they were married.
Paypaw made an iron frame to train it up,
But it pulled the pipes out and took the whole side of the house.
And her garden is there: magnolia, mimosa, and roses,
And a whole hedge of Cape Jessamine (They call it Gardenia now)...
So many blooms in June we have to take
Bouquets to the neighbors, the scent is so heavy.
I'm not allowed to play in there, but I sneak in sometimes
And climb up and sink my face into the huge magnolia blossoms--
Fragrance like drinking from the springs of heaven.--
I bruise brown love-words on the petals with my fingernail
And bear them like grails to my virgin,
My mother's sister who is still in her teens.
We walk to the right on Sundays, except Pahpaw,
Past houses grander and grander, and the pew
Shivers my bottom as the organ quakes,
And then I'm first soprano, then acolyte, then
Lifting my downy face to the crucifix I carry
Round and round before the bishop and then, stop.
While the family, except Pahpaw, rages round the table:
What do you mean, don't? We, we all, we be, we
All believe. We always our only holy forever
And advocate. You men!

West is always behind me, the back yard
Which Pahpaw planted in clover for his girls,
Where no glass or metal object has even been permitted,
Where I play with my Airedale Fuzzy, who thinks I am his sheep,
And works me away from the back gate which opens into the alley,
As he works me away from the street out front,
Walking a cautious parabola between me
And any passersby on the sidewalk
While I race little lead cars under the elms.
West is where Aunt Ida lives in the hayloft over the barn,
Who boils the laundry on Monday and irons it on Tuesday,
Black Ida whose milk was built into my mothers's bones
And into mine, who cooks with all the other women,
Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Fourtha July,
And sits in church with us when one of us dies,
But lives her own life which we ask nothing about.
West is where my other grandmother, wise and weary, lives,
Rearing my uncle's children ("You rear children, darlinger;
You raise horses."). Blanny,
Who says, "Child of grace, use your napkin."
Who says, "The way other people treat you reflects their background;
The way you treat them reflects ours, and don't you forget it."
Who says, "Pick up your feet." Who says, "We practice
Good manners to maintain life's proper shape."
Who says, "I will not have you speak as if you were a fieldhand."
Who says to my cousin Betty, "If your young man has no
Conversation, you may always go sit in the porch-swing."
Who settles arguments regarding behavior, "We
Do not do that." And they are settled.
Blanny, who sees a host of golden daffodils
In the forest primeval by Mona's rill
And listens to the strains of Israfel.
Who tells me, "A great star appeared in the East."
Who sets me to read a book beginning, "I am born."
Blanny who sings, "Sweet and low in marble halls
And the hunter home from the hill."
Who weeps tears, idle tears, until I weep myself.
Who tells me,
"When you are young, the days are so short,
And the years are so long; when you are old,
The years are so short, and the days are so long."
Blanny, who tells me, "Remember who we are,"
Who wore that name because I could not say, "Granny,"
Had it carved on her tombstone as if it were a title.
Blanny, whom these wakeful eyes may weep.
West is where my father goes, and my mother
And I come home from the South End.

East is always in front of me. School is there
And the public library where I stop on the way home.
In my grandfather's house, I am the prince;
Inside the schoolroom, I am king.
On the playground, the peasants revolt continually,
But I ignore their riots and stare them down, until
Some lout one time lays hands upon my person.
It takes a teacher and a monitor to pry my nails'
From his convulsing gullet. I am sent
To the principal, to whom I say, "I am not
Sorry. I meant to kill him." Twelve years old!
"He's always been so good." I am sent home.
When I come back, nobody speaks. Horseman, pass by!
For the rest of all my days in school,
The dirty names surround the ring of silence.
I leave them to their paper wads, their wheels, and their soft
Balls. I essay Parnassus, the trail a ledge just wide
Enough for one. I drink the fabled spring deeply
As I can, but my cup is small, and the dipping is work.
Erato and Euterpe are erratic bitches, muses
Thought they be. I entreat, but they are slow to answer.
Not deaf. It's just hard to get their ear.
The wind whistles over this damned precipice.
My gown just covers my poor arse; my cap
Was whipped off long ago.
I hastily snatched a few herbs and apples,
What little nourishment I get,
And wouldn't scorn a few pomegranate seeds.
I'm stuck up here; I'll never get back down:
There's always someone clawing his way up
That damned ledge. And I don't really want to.
East is East, and all the flowers are mine.

Such few times I seek directions, don't tell me,
"Take the off-ramp East after you pass Broadway;
Turn North when you get to the first traffic light."
I can only get my bearings as I
Can remember them from Pahpaw's front porch.

I can still see the whole family sitting there.
(It was always cool there in the evenings.)
Mahmaw and her sister in the swing. Great-
Grandmaw in her rocking-chair, tenderly placed,
Mother and Aunt Ethel on the front steps
In flowery dresses, organdy or silk.
Pahpaw striding up the long hall, his hearty
Basso calling out, "Lemonade! Made in the shade
And stirred with a spade!" Oh
For a draught of vintage!

Back to my ill-chosen words.