The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Roy Bentley

Angry Men

 

1. Without a Wish or a Word to Slow the Falling
            —Ralph Black, “The Theory and Practice of Angels” (The Southern Review, Autumn 2008)

What I was doing watching Peter Pan while my father
and a woman went into a bedroom-Neverland I don’t know.
I don’t know why his adultery didn’t register, even at 7,
any more than that Mary Martin was a woman. I was there,
at the rear of the woman’s house, hearing the clock-tick
inside the crocodile of Conscience, waiting for this much
of the night to be over and to go into the kitchen, her kitchen,
and play penny-ante poker. I was in front of the television
for a good two hours waiting, and I know there is a quiet
in the house of a stranger and a look you get when that
stranger comes out of her bedroom, having made love
to your father. The lover he took that year wanted me
to win at poker. Her hand touched mine when my stack
of coins was gone. And I think Peter Pan may have gifted
the children with that look—a word of encouragement—
to make believers of them after the first of many falls
before they flew. The awful truth is that such falling is
the end of believing for most of us. He didn’t look at me
when he came out of the woman’s bedroom, at the table
playing poker or sometime later in the car, driving home,
the ante of my complicity to remind me whose son I was.
And he didn’t ask me whether, or if, I’d liked Peter Pan.
Didn’t tell me what this was about or what to say, later,
if my mother asked where we’d gone. What we’d done.
I don’t know what makes a man betray a woman, but
I do know you’re not a kid forever since no Tinkerbell
materialized anywhere near Dayton, Ohio that night.
He drove and the headlights of oncoming cars conjured
nothing approaching fairies. I knew there weren’t fairies.
Maybe a pirate or two sailing to riches or flying to ruin.

 


2. Mantle Dying

If I needed a hero, you’d be that guy—
a second liver in the busted gut, the sudden

knowledge of mortality that has you fielding
questions about the cancer and what comes next.

Everyone’s going where you are, yet they marvel.
Maybe DiMaggio was right to marry the movie star.

For sure, characterizing your fairy-tale life as wasted
is tacky. But then you flash that Commerce-Oklahoma-

aw-shucks grin and lean into the bank of microphones.
Who knew you’d teach us about dying and not wanting

death to appear in the way 1956 had: out of nowhere.
Who knew you had to be the Christ and swing a bat.

We aren’t all champions, but you’ve got us hoping
we rise from our hospital sick beds as if the light

is wrong or has reminded us we were holding on
for someone else. At the end, we want to believe

you were daydreaming about the leggy models
draped over you in the Brylcreem commercials.


for Theresa Ann Aleshire Williams


3. Upon Being Called a Hillbilly in Iowa

John Steinbeck understood angry men, called them interesting,
and I’m one. A man and angry. And now this man I work with,
who says he’s been everywhere playing lead and rhythm guitar
in a rock ‘n roll band, has called me a hillbilly. Sure, he says it
with a smile the size of Dubuque like it’s just something to say
when men are getting to know one another. And so there it is,
that tingling sensation at the back of the neck. It doesn’t matter
anymore how much or little my heart is written on by cruelty.
It doesn’t matter that I should have learned something by now
about the way men whittle at one another like a block of wood.
To fashion something ugly to replace something else, who knows.
Today, as usual, the fellow knows better but doesn’t apologize,
except by continuing to talk like the real problem is with me.
Time again for patching the wound with whatever’s at hand.
With words or a blow to the face. Maybe both. Maybe neither.
Time to choke down a sense that no man is part of all he meets
till he meets it. Or doesn’t because his daughter is in the room
and too interested in what he may or may not be about to do.

 


4. Sid Hatfield, the Sheriff of Matewan, West Virginia, Has His Say

I’m not one to brag, but how many dead do you know who raise themselves
up from 15 bullet wounds on some courthouse steps? Does it offend you
the last was to the brain and I’m still holding forth, speaking truth to power?
Some of the rest of the departed should be so lucky as to resurrect in a poem,
touching the living again with words that resonate—I know, it’s not a word we
used a lot in those days in West Virginia but it’s a word the dead know—because
whatever good we do does that: echoes like one long stutter. I stood in the street
that day and emptied both my Colt revolvers into a throng of coal-company thugs,
killing at least two of the “sonsabitches”—there’s a word for you, one that rises
in anger like men will, some women too, if you push them. I don’t mourn the men
I sent to Perdition or the way they died in the railbeds, skull and brain matter mixing
into a sluice of breath and blood and coal dust because of what some do for money.
Why not offer a worker a fair wage? A worker, man or woman, can wait longer
than grass springing up under trees hardened to human suffering. Why not watch
smiles spreading on faces of generations of children who know only going to bed
with full bellies? Why not let them believe the very best about us before they die?
There is no end to bullets, with trajectories of sorrow and discontent and mayhem.
And I don’t want back the ones I loosed. And they, the sonsabitches who shot me,
wouldn’t want back those they poured into me that last day I could feel anything.
But I would like to take the hand of a child and lead it away from the gore and then
into the garden that even Matewan is. Look how blood vanishes, how the rain had
the final word on what constitutes a union and ran on despite its precious freight.
The rain is blood, more or less. It glows with violent change whatever we say.


5. 1946

Ed has come home to Neon from Ashland Pen
to the north, having served a year and two months
for the wounding of a US Army major in India.
He’s pissed, sure, but who isn’t in these hills?
A bad discharge doesn’t mean disgrace, either.
Most of the male population of Letcher County
has been in some sort of scrape with the Law.
Hillfolk are dangerous when shoved or shot at.
Ed Potter wants not to be told he looks a lot like
John Garfield since what he hears is Pretty Boy.
One more idle hour and he may explode yet again.
Neon looks different as he walks from the Junction—
the way the interior walls of a B-17 Flying Fortress
will look different in different light, then familiar
as you stand in the door about to jump, then jump
shouting the Americanized name of that Apache
who bested the Army long enough to get famous.
When was the Bentley place bricked bright red?
Just when did D.V. Bentley get so prosperous?
Ed is ready to profit from his stretch in the pen,
prepared to holler Geronimo! and jump into life
after war and ransacking an overseas world for
the purpose of getting even. Ol’ Doc Bentley
may need him to cut brush from bottomland
or swing a pick. Polish his convertible. Now,
as he passes the house, he sees lights burning
with a radiance that says they’re not gas lamps.
When did Neon get electric like Ashland Pen?
He needs someone to answer a few questions.
The Commonwealth of the State of Kentucky
owes him a clarification. And a decent meal
like one he had sat down to when that major
staggered into him. Spilling whiskey. Acting,
back on his feet, as if nothing had happened.

 


6. Vengeance

It’s a long time now since Junior Tucker
shot my uncle Ed and then choked to death
on a toothpick from the A&P grocery store.
Ironically, a man whose initials were A and P
had come to my grieving grandmother to ask
if she wanted Junior Tucker dead. Murdered.
She told me that A.P. asked her to say the word
and he’d shoot Junior. Stab him, if she needed
to know that he’d died slowly. My grandmother
said she told A.P. she prayed, for days, and been
shown a verse: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,
and I will repay
. I’m paraphrasing, it’s been years.
Maybe you’ve lost someone like that, someone
unrecognized for their gifts. For the great gift of
their presence. To make her grandchildren aware
of the world in which they lived, its seamless dark
and an occasional ray of light in a room, she read
from a book devoted to the notion of vengeance,
the King James Version of The Bible. She read it
to a boy whose name she sang to a failed orchard
when it was dinnertime. When she called, I’d hear
the cries from a branch inaccessible to most adults,
given their weight and inability to climb. If she was
mistaken, letting a murderer live a year or two longer,
praying to be shown how to keep the windows of
the heart open to the likelihood of a caring God
and some form of forgiveness, who am I to say?
It took a while, and a toothpick, but he did die.


7. Obituary

                                “I doubted my composure—
                                my ability to compose—ˮ
                                            Peter Schmitt, “My Father’s Obituary” (from
Renewing the Vows)

He was watching PBS, The Civil War, fed up
with channels with commercials and Charlie Sheen,
and because, it turns out, the terminally ill—
some, at least—have a hard-on for battlefields.
He wasn’t dead yet, my pops, the rot of lung
and prostate cancers hadn’t finished him,
but it would, and soon. So he sat me
down beside him. Said I should write something
they could put in the newspaper afterwards.
A way to calibrate the timepiece he used
to keep track of his life. A calendar with marginalia
and appointments indelibly inked in. This man
who bruised nearly everyone around him
wanted me, the Writer, his son, to sum up
seventy-eight years of love and war
and the rest, his way of being alive, existence
according to one born in 1932, et cetera.
I begged off, saying I’d tried before,
in poems, and that hadn’t been to his liking.
I wish I could remember why they call those pockets
of silence near a battlefield “acoustic shadows”—
we were talking, and I caught only fragments,
a small part, nothing that would serve understanding:
much like eulogizing anyone’s life. I wish I could
be sure it had something to do with how sound travels,
how observers can see what is taking place
and yet are swaddled in a mysterious lapse of noise.
I wish I could say how they decided
that some form of explanation was more important
than the simple comfort and blessing it is
not to be among those undertaking the dying,
to be that far removed from the fighting.

 


8. Roy “Judge” Bean Goes Hillbilly on a Defendant
 
If I’m not a Kentuckian anymore, thought the Judge—
and thoughts of the Big Sandy River in spring rose in him,
maybe I’m all the law there is in this part of west Perdition,
maybe there’s a dollar or two in this
—but his hill-born brain
made him remember these were not his people and whatever
cruelty he exacted upon them was, well, money in the bank.
He had had a rope around his neck. Been dragged through
the chaparral. Lost one testicle to a thorn bush, thank you;
saying hello anywhere in Texas like slapping a rattlesnake.
The usual human foolery bored him more than a fair fight.
And so, most mornings, he started by rendering a verdict
on an Unfortunate with his hands and feet tied, pockets
already rifled through, a look in his eyes surrendering
thoughts of fairness, waiting to hear Guilty! shouted
in service of the truth about west Texas. Absolutely
the sort of thing a stranger should keep to himself
for fear of winding up like this, about to be hanged
in the only manner possible in such treeless country,
an order shouted, in Spanish, to a horse who knows
or has a pretty good idea about what is happening
for the unpardonable sin of disparaging the thorns
then the whole bush the Judge had grown fond of,
having been left a cherished-and-residual “left nut”
which he dedicated, thereafter, to the quest of being
found worthy to meet the Jersey Lily, Lily Langtry.
Never to be a Kentuckian again and happy, married
to the awful fact of what any man will and must do
to survive, he secures the knotted rope to the neck.
Says a word, in English, meaning Fucked again.
Then smiles. Booms out a high, cackling laugh
filled with the light of forested spaces and hawks
falling from the sky through clean, righteous air.

 


9. Early Spring in Ohio

In the beginning, her stories were beautiful.
Mostly about girlhood and barn dances. Boys.
Then my grandmother let it slip she’d lost sons.
Early spring in Ohio, and she walked outside
without finishing her sentence. I went, too.
Our development lawn wasn’t green yet,
and the sky looked like it was deciding
if there was a blue the world might wear
or at least try on. I had heard I had uncles
 
who’d been murdered. Heard it whispered
like that a bush wouldn’t blossom because
our neighbors were Mexican, the mother
curandero. Which my grandmother said
meant that she was little better than a witch.
That year, Comanche Drive was one big epic
of upheaval and going on, my father “traveling”
and Mother working. It is a matter of no great
importance to me now whether the neighbors
 
were Mexican, the mother a caster of spells,
or another nationality—say, Greek or Cuban—
but I want to remember why my grandmother
stopped talking that day, and why her retelling
of the deaths had me following barefoot. At least
you’re safe here
, she told me. Absurd thing to say,
surely, to a boy of 5 to whom Ohio had so far been
a home, and that home pretty much unthreatened.
She looked down at my lack of shoes and socks,
 
and reconsidered the story, where she’d left off
and how it had ended up tossing us both outside
into the world of the curandero who might have
had the cure for her grieving, for all she knew.
She didn’t say she was sorry, only Let’s get
you inside
—while the young maples furred
with that first green-and-greener-still and
she wiped her eyes with a petticoat hem
and I turned so as not to see too much.

 

 

 

ROY BENTLEY's books include Body of a Deer by a Creek in Summer (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and Walking with Eve in the Loved City (University of Arkansas Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize. His poems and short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Bentley is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council.

 

 

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