James Miller is a native of Houston, Texas. His poems have appeared in Sweet Tree Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Maine Review, Lullwater Review, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Main Street Rag, Verdad, Juked, The Write Launch, The Shore, Menacing Hedge, Califragile, Meat for Tea, The Atlanta Review, and elsewhere.
A week before the hurricane
I walked in the middle of our street.
The eldest ducks had been foraging
in browned lawns, lapping
oiled runoff and sifting mites
from their ragged feathers.
Here was the patriarch,
than my warmest welcome:
he cruised the asphalt seam,
waist then earlobe height.
A beat before
we would meet in a tangle,
he lifted with a shrug
and settled in the neighbor’s
Two sourdough loaves
cool now in our kitchen,
hopeful as ancient eggs.
Floodwater pools on the porch.
Clammy acorns hover there,
like pupils in grey,
For two hours before lunch I warmed
chill air with my task. Sugar cane, cut stalks
three times my height, lay in a massed pile.
Their stiff browned barks ribbed rhythm
under my fingers. Each I fed singly
into the rumbling mouth, squatted
like a mournful corrugated hog
in the clearing.
Coushatta pines loomed,
and November-gold oaks—all incurious,
drinking the sun’s weak stream. To keep the teeth
spinning, a harnessed mule circled round
and again, sweat layered on his mottled flank.
Essential to keep the cane parallel to the packed
red earth, balanced a hand’s length above
my left shoulder.
Were there gear sounds, chewing
and textured crunch? Listen for the larger,
gas-powered beast, a hundred paces off.
It drowned all song we made. A dozen parish
locals stood round that noise, sharing proofs
on the purity of work. My own was easy
because voluntary: fruit of vacation,
one state over, friends of friends.
No family face I was obliged
to remember. No asking after
a loan, a wife, a clean break.
No history in that space, I could imagine.
No question of where the turnoff hid itself
off the interstate, how the cane came
to grow, who owned the land and who
they bought it from, who brought the press
and fed the mule’s sire, who sold the sap
and how that coin paid for weddings,
tuition at State, promised votes or repairs
on weed-eaters for high grass
along the fence line.
And who worked in the houses and baked
the cakes, who lived in the extra room
over the garage, and for how long?
How much cornmeal do you measure out
for okra, how deep do you hold
each piece, down in the oil till it
crisps but does not drown?
I fed cane to the iron throat,
while thin seed sifted through cheesecloth
to dribble into a bucket once reserved
for milk, or beans snapped
like traitor necks. Spent the day
with syrup, but never tasted it.
That night I curled in jammies
by the fire, sucked castoff squares
of cane the size of engorged strawberries,
their sweetness cloying as carols.
When the packed fibers had wilted
to bark behind my aching teeth, I plopped
each dead husk into my palm, tossed it
to the flame. Each one throbbed the heat
as it passed, brought rust-brightness
out of itself, half-beat of grace.