Time after time, my father cornered his tools.
His hands sweated; he palmed his dreams
That cash would roll from his pockets to a sock
In a bureau: he did not trust banks.
He would shake in frantic poses poles
He cut from Beaver Dam, bamboo he rigged
With lead-lines to fish the bottom with his hands;
A stopper from a medicine bottle
For my pole, that little cork dipped in paint
Red as my Radio Flyer wagon.
We’d trudge to the Rock Hole on Middle Creek,
A father and son duo, singing all the way,
“Fishy, fishy, in the running brook,
Come and bite my little hook,”
Stuff like that: “I will clean you like a man;
Mama will fry you in a pan,”
The life of the farmer-father-son, complete,
For I know now that’s what he liked,
Water in his blue eyes floating
Monofilaments for bottom-feeders,
Horse-fish, channel-cat, horny-head, eel.
I would hang a pumpkinseed,
Pull too hard and get tangled up in a sycamore.
He would laugh, lean way back, as if to learn
More of my embarrassment,
Till one day, when I was grown,
Dozers came in yellow blends of diesel,
Plenty of groans and crunches of tracks
Not made for fisherman and son.
Result: a cul-de-sac at our Rock Hole.
The air was thick and black, smoke’s face of spades.
The rippling water there muddied
Time, my father’s sight a glimmed and watery
Patch in pools now of lily pads
Beside his grave at Rehobeth Church,
The lifting logs a roll in Middle Creek,
His hands clutching for mine around my pen.
Shelby Stephenson served as Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 2015-2018. Recent books: Elegies for Small Game (Press 53), winner of Roanoke-Chowan Award; Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl (Bellday Books), the Bellday Prize; Paul’s Hill: Homage to Whitman (Sir Walter Press); Our World (Press 53); Nin’s Poem (St. Andrews University Press); Slavery & Freedom on Paul’s Hill (Press 53). Recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Achievement Award, English Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, serving as editor of Pembroke Magazine from 1979 until his retirement in 2010. He lives at the homeplace on Paul’s Hill, where he was born, near McGee’s Crossroads, about ten miles northwest of Benson.