A Mercy
by Jesse Millner

    The first poem I wrote
    after the long night of fifteen year's drinking
    was about my grandmother's hands,
    how they reached toward me, comforted
    me in the cool hours of early childhood
    when I awoke often to the sound of Grandpa
    coming through the kitchen door, carrying
    an aluminum pail of warm milk. Which Grandma
    poured over ice, and I drank the creamy sweetness
    as her pale blue-veined hands kneaded
    dough for biscuits. It all comes back now,

    the rush of memory like a flight of small birds
    I surprised last night near the hibiscus tree--
    the thrum of their rising a mercy, a reminder
    of a world that has long surrendered
    but manages to sneak back
    on quick wings, messengers calling us

    toward a deeper life, a time when we lived
    closer to the world of the blacksnake hiding
    in the cold dairy barn, eyes full of winter
    in early spring easing down from hay bales,
    ignored by my grandfather who tends to
    his pregnant cow that kicks against the grey stall.
    But my eyes follow the snake as it scrawls
    a journey across the mildewed straw, tongue
    slipping out, seeking meaning in this new
    world that has emerged from ice and dawn
    burning through chinks in barn walls. Somewhere

    deep in the corner of my age and alcohol addled brain,
    March 1959 is putting on its glory coat
    and the Virginia sun is rising over
    the easterly scud that will fade down into
    the pine tree tops. I sling the barn door open
    and walk the red mud path that leads back
    to the kitchen where breakfast will be ready soon.

    Now, I'm passing the henhouse, the windmill,
    and the woodshed where a John Deere tractor
    rises from shadow, big tires haloed in
    first light raining down its dazzling miracle
    over the nicked and rusted green body
    of Nottoway County forests and fields
    shimmering in a dawn forty years ago
    where swallows rise from barn eaves,
    dark bodies fluttering off into
    the woods that are still pitch black,
    still holding on to the night,
    as I climb the creaking back porch stairs,
    open the kitchen door to a room yellowed
    by a cackling woodstove, its mouth
    open like a lost moon.

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