Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Contest Archive

The Poetry of Anthony Deaton: Winner, 2000


The Refusal

Question and Answer



From the train car's grimy and slightly beveled window, she watches dawn
rake over snowdrifts ridged along the stubble rows of last year's wheat.
Her fists in fur-cuffed gloves grip a cellophane-wrapped
yellow rose nodding out from a bleak spray of Baby's Breath.

A parting gift from someone she loved once and loves yet? Who knows.
With such flinty skies so early in the month, that near-lemony bloom
seems an awkwardly bent bit of pageantry.
But then I face backwards, so the passing blur of landscape

reinvents itself as it falls behind this slow length of train.
She, however, stares to where the fields begin flat and compact;
then, almost wind-blown, rush alongside us in total disassemblage.
Woods. A rusted harrow forgotten under a copse of beech.

Always another shape emerges into motion then yields to the still,
passing eye. . . No. Not a 'harrow.' A 'tractor,' clunky and useless
and, therefore, of goddamn Soviet design.
And look at her stocking runs, her glued-together gum sole shoes!

And look at the towns. Nothing new (or nothing right)
going on forty years. Disassemblage, yes.

Well, also movement over the winter farmland at least: tractors, trees, the odd harrow
between us. When the draw close, they come as chaos.

No. No. No. There is nothing between you; she is
not concerned with such fancy things out the window.
And you don't pay attention.
The rose is her story, but you can't imagine how.
Consolation is how

she regards it, I suppose. One firm gift she might carry into the world
that smears out of shape even as she looks to it for coherence. Like life.
Wrong, wrong. Not like life. Certainly not like your life.
everywhere snow banks discolored by brown coal

burnt daily in Ostrava, choking all points south.
Not a 'copse of beech,' but charred, defoliated pine;
you don't pay attention. The rose is for her father and mother,
a small dressing for the dinner table tonight. It is a bright spot.

There is nothing in the moon or stars or what is in your head.
There is nothing about the fields or how motion defies form.
There is something in her you cannot bear to get close to,
but her heart does not break for that.

The Refusal

The child asked for money and I gave him nothing.
At the South Africa-Zimbabwe border
I thumbed for a ride. A small boy of maybe
nine or ten asked for money but I gave him nothing.

Try to imagine the heat, and still so early in the day.
At a distance, under the shade of an acacia tree,
a group of young Zims watched their friend,
small for his age, walk over to me. He wanted money,

extended a small empty hand and I gave him nothing.
I gave him nothing. He was young and wore no shoes.
But, there was no hesitation in his step; not even the sun-
cooked pavement fazed him. In the shade his fellows waited

with cool gazes. They needed money too, I was sure.
He wore no shoes. Only a pair of blue slacks
cut off above the knee, a white shirt,
yellowed twine tied round his wrist.

He was young, wore no shoes and wanted
a little money. Dollars, pula, rand. His friends
watched patiently in the shade. The heat
bore down on the withered scrub dotting the plains

as if to prove there is no limit to ruin. I studied the face
of my pocket watch and glanced into South Africa
for oncoming traffic. The boy with no shoes stood
reflectively at my side, studying me, glancing

back to the acacia's shade. Dollars, pula, rand, he said.
He chatted a while, asked if I were English.
His English was poor; the sentences stumbled
over their own inversions. I waited in silence.

The young boys under the tree waited in silence.
The occasional passing car never slowed. And the boy
in blue shorts, white t-shirt, with terrible grammar and no shoes,
ran through his well-rehearsed lines. Dollars, or rand, or pula.

When he left, he tried to make me feel ashamed.
He wanted to say I was making him suffer. He wore no shoes,
his English was minimal: You are suffering me.
You are suffering me, he said, when I gave him nothing.

Though I knew what he meant, I was amused. And with that sun,
and no ride, and his friends just waiting for a sign, I thought,
I am suffering him. Now and again I think about him.
I was amused at the time. At the time.


Question and Answer

Knoxville, 1977. The question is an accusation,
split from the tight smile of a boy
just a grade or two ahead of me. He asks:
Are you a nigger lover?

He does not wonder because my parents
are activists (how could he know?),
or because my older sister domestically
thumps cantaloupe at Kroger's in public

company of a black man. I have no older
sister to push ahead. The case is much simpler.
This boy, who seems just shy of man-
hood (awkward cigarette between his lips,

the milky shadow of a mustache),
knows my white face is the only white face,
the only face framed by straight hair and bangs,
in a regular after-school carpool. And when

he dares me with who I love, I am standing
on a sidewalk in front of Chilhowie Elementary,
unsure what to say, and terrified my ride
will arrive before I've escaped the answer.

It isn't the word nigger that raked in my chest,
but lover. Lover, I realized must be touching
another's naked body; "lover" was reserved for grownups,
a taboo in the curious world of my childhood.

But on spring afternoons whetted with the greeny
scent of cut grass, and after the day's class,
I sometimes visited my neighbor Mary.
shutting ourselves in the gentle dim of her room,

we undressed and lay together close. Quietly
played at love, each coaxing the other's smooth
flesh into wakefulness with mouth and tongue,
like babies who learn first the world by taste.

Her flat nipples shone like ebony nickels,
a bodied currency, freshly minted desire, salt.
We traded childhood for something we did not
know how to speak or value, and thrilled and shamed

in our half-found, half-concealed provinces,
fearing only parents discovering-- the punishment
we knew would attend such adventures.
So when that boy's voice broke over me,

Are you a nigger lover? I heard not a slur,
but an affronted adult, the glaring eyes
widening at a privacy suddenly gone public,
and the word lover hovering there, naming what I was.