Mother's Milk
Jesse Graves
A couple of things she gave me:
powdered formula mixed with water
heated on a stove but held very near 
her heart while I drank it;
the certainty that Jimmy Carter
should have been president for life
and that a yellow, stuffed, or dead dog
would be better than Ronald Reagan.
                           *                         *                         *
By the time I was born she was fully 
in charge, the family had moved 
back to Sharps Chapel, 
bought her grandfather’s old house.
My mother conducted a small orchestra 
whose members who relied on her 
for every need: her sister, set out 
with three kids in a falling down trailer;
her uncle, speaking mostly to relatives
already dead; an aunt across the ridge
whose husband tried to shoot my brother.
Wild brother, wrecking every car and girl
who came his way. My wallflower sister
dreaming a way through high school. 
My father home one day a week, that spent
clearing fields or fixing the ancient tractor.
And me, my late birth the counter weight
to her father’s early death.
                           *                         *                         *
My grandmother’s birthday today,
same as stately old Richard Wilbur. 
Their lives begun a few hours apart, 
one spent tracing the beautiful lines
etched in the faces of baroque fountains,
envisioning angels in the laundry,
the other sweeping out hospital
waiting rooms, her second job 
after years glazing porcelain conductors
to crown the tops of telephone poles. 
One life creating my mother,
the other rendering Moliere in English.

                           *                         *                         *
I stepped out of the airport in Syracuse
into the first darts of a swirling snow 
the whole western skyline dropping fast
back in lake effect country 
$38 in my wallet
home further away than the moon 
Sunday after Thanksgiving 
                           *                         *                         *
Once I tripped over a barbed wire fence,
both legs tangled between the strands,
six years old, struck down by the first
mountain I thought I could climb. 
She carried me home, my shins wrapped 
in a t-shirt and my ear close against her pulse,
tears starting to dry on both our faces.
                           *                         *                         *
A few other things she gave me:

an ear for slightly off-pitch singing
notes left lingering in throats
from Loretta Lynn to Lucinda Williams

ill-advised loyalty to women who pay
half-interested attention to me
wear choppy haircuts and just-visible tattoos

an avalanche of love and kindness 
the worst preparation a man
can get for this world’s embrace. 

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