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Next to Godliness

Munch’s sister turns her head
to stare at something beyond, her face
in quarter-view unformed, fetal,
nose a tiny bump, eye large and distant.
The colors of the print are few and faint,
just threads of blood twisting in her untinted hair.

My mother, my grandmother, her mother
for whom I was named—
those generations of Carolina Calvinists,
what did they know of ritual cleanliness?
Of the unblemished animal chosen
for offering, ceremonial washing
before the sacrifice?

Of Egyptian priests,
plucked hairless all over and circumcised,
“preferring,” says Herodotus, “to be clean
rather than comely”?
Of Jewish women bathing away
their monthly shame?

My mothers fried country ham,
couldn’t cook without bacon grease.
But they were born again to the cult
of sanitation.

After the doctor warned her my babysitter
had the clap, my mother swabbed the toilet seat
in alcohol after every visit
by a visitor she didn’t know enough to trust.

My great-grandmother would have wished
a clapper had rung to signal unclean
when the school teacher came to board
in their house, coughing her blood secretly
into handkerchiefs, secretly burning
her shame in the stove because she had nowhere
else to go until she couldn’t hide
the contagion.

Then the purification commenced:
scour hands raw with lye soap, boil
the pots, the plates, utensils, bedclothes,
burn what can’t be cleansed.
And still, already, Annie Katherine,
the youngest girl, beginning to cough.

My mothers never stopped to examine
precisely how germlessness came to stand
next to obeying the Lord,
but they knew it now for life or death.

Sketches Without

1.Landscape Without Figure

as if in a field
stubble dull and thready bald scalp
of clay showing through
cracked and little anthills
stem of lamb’s quarters one dried thistle

as if a blind house in the field
dark and heavy with haunting
or murder done

as if the old depot by the lost tracks
paint long scrolled off
boards soft and crumbling around
rusted nails and the years forgotten

when the drummers came through
the town with their samples
before the flood washed them
somewhere else and the trains rerouted

and the town unrooted empty the crates
of pump handles and tractor parts cast off
from the platform and farmers
years later plowing up bundles of socks

as if a muddy cotton toe
still pokes through the clay

2. Place Without Landscape

At first it’s a building—a big house or a small castle, perhaps an old hotel that, over generations, has sprouted wings. You’re searching windowless corridors flanked by closed doors. You have a room with a door somewhere, but you can’t remember the number, no longer have the key. You see no one, although sometimes you can hear the muffled grumble of a vacuum cleaner or some other small machine. Sometimes you reach a blank wall and must turn or turn around or go up a flight of stairs. Or down a flight of stairs. You can’t tell if it’s day or night, just the fluorescence of overhead lights. The crackers in your pocket are too few for a trail of crumbs. Perhaps you should just eat them. Perhaps you should curl into a corner and sleep.

Then it’s a forest. There are no paths here. The trees grow too close together, the vines and brambles tangle your feet. It’s so dark moss grows all around the trunks, north or south or wherever. You don’t dare climb over fallen logs for fear of disturbing what’s underneath. The rustlings may be a wind in the highest treetops or something with fangs. All the berries and the fungi look poisonous. Sometimes there’s water, but it doesn’t flow. It just makes bogs. Maybe it’s the same bog. You keep squinting for a horizon or a star or the lights of an airplane, but you no longer expect to find any sort of way out. You keep staggering on because lying down is impossible. You wonder if your skeleton will be found at all and if it will be frozen in mid-step.

3. Portrait Without Subject

we’ll call her the woman
because we have to call her something
but she doesn’t know if that’s right

not because she can’t decide
if she wants to sleep with boys or girls
or doesn’t know what clothes to wear

but because her body is without form
a void  smoke at most
the hands before her on the bed move
but she doesn’t know if she has moved them
they hold a book as if she were reading
but the words are smoke too

there are these gaps
outside the window is a gap

someone hands her a mirror
(don’t you look nice)
there’s a frame flashes of light
where the face should be
she left her face behind somewhere
when she wasn’t looking  


Susan Settlemyre Williams is the author of Ashes in Midair (Many Mountains Moving, 2008)  and a chapbook, Possession. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Diode, and Shenandoah, among other journals, as well as in various anthologies.  She is book review editor for Blackbird.