Field Portrait
Jesse Graves
 
The man and woman stand deep in tall grass,
each balancing a small girl like a school prize.
The man is tall and leans toward the camera
while the child in his arms looks down,
squinting at the tiny flares of her sunlit shoes.
A wooden fence stretches out behind them,
row of short sticks like tobacco spears
snapped in half, holding a small orchard
inside the fence, apple trees and pear trees.

The womanís dress is the same color as the pears
and it must be Sunday, for the fabric is neither 
muslin nor floursack, but looks to be fine as linen,
a flowered embroidery stitched along the hemline.
She does not lean in to close the circle
                                   and she does not smile,
though the children beam like lit candles,
their dresses white as cinder fallen from the sun. 

A drunkardís like a chimney full of ashes,
more likely to burn the house down
than keep it warm. Thatís what her mother said
when she confessed they were getting married.
She had thought it over and over, a man can changeó
she had seen him in the field, he could outwork
his mule when it came to plowing cornrows,
could sow six acres of rye grass in a day.

The pencil trace says, Edith and Ken, Summer 1943.

It is not hard to imagine how the manís body
would turn on itself in the years to follow,
become a natural enemy of his ways and wants.
Spinal declension, eruptions of the stomach,
                                             sotted liver, stroke.
He never got the farm he worked those years, 
got none of the money his father made
when he sold it, none of the tools or cattle.

In the picture, one happy daughter reaches up
to the apples hanging like Christmas bulbs
while the other, my mother, looks down.
Their young father, teller of heroic Indian tales,
drinker of cough syrup and rubbing alcohol,
stands with them, his life more than half over.
Their mother never relenting, who will later stab 
his lip with a fork, beat him sober with a boot-heel,
call him the saintliest no-account man 
                                 God ever set upon the earth. 

Forthcoming in Connecticut Review
     


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