Kory Wells: “The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgment”

 

 

The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgment
—From the Ninth United States Census, June 18, 1870, Macon County, North Carolina

Even though he has read and reread
best he can the instructions
sent direct from Washington;

even though he employs
a sturdy portable inkstand,
quality ink he blots dry
with unpracticed diligence
on strictly confidential,
wide white sheets;

even though important scientific
results depend upon his questionable
Rs and too-short Ls, tedious
recording of Name, Age, Occupation,
and Color;

Assistant Marshal J.T. Reeves, who some call
carpetbagger, now sits amiably on the porch
with one Willis Guy, farmer, age 59,
and reads back to Mr. Guy
all he has written, so mistakes may be
corrected on the spot. The marshal is not
from around these parts, and Mr. Guy, 

previously known as
Mulatto, previous to that known as
Free Colored Person, if asked would claim
Catawba, Cherokee, even the dark Porterghee,
but figures it best to keep his silence
at the government man’s ditto of Column 6. Like that,
Mr. Guy and all his kin become
White. Mr. Guy would admit he isn’t
as good at letters as his children,
but squinting sideways at the marshal’s ledger,
he knows the unmistakable difference between W and M.

 

About the Author: Kory Wells is a poet, writer, storyteller, and advocate for the arts, democracy, afternoon naps, and other good causes. In 2017 she was named the inaugural poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she also founded and manages a reading series. Her poetry collection Sugar Fix is available from Terrapin Books as of September 2019. Read more of her work at korywells.com.

 

More by Kory Wells: 

Untold Story

When the Watched Pot Boils

 

Image Credit: “Harrison’s Columbian inks, black, scarlet, red, blue” (1846) The Library of Congress

“When the Watched Pot Boils” By Kory Wells

 

When the Watched Pot Boils

You know time is getting by,
and you try to remember
all she told you:

Use both dark meat and white.
Save bone and skin and gristle
for the cat. Roll the dough thin
as a paper sack. Slice it into strips
no wider than your thumb.
You’d give up sweets for a month
to hold again her wood-handled knife,
its old blade so often sharpened
it was almost gone.

You think of these things
as you stand at the stove,
the kettle’s broth rolling.
Think of the stories she told.
That time a door-to-door peddler
tried to snatch her youngest.
That hot night she and her lover
broke every dish in the house.
That Sunday the kids ate
their own pet rooster for lunch.
Reminding you,
chicken and dumplings need
plenty of salt. You taste

that name passed down to her,
Tennessee,
and she is with you,
barefoot, stirring the pot,
one eyebrow raised.
That hard T, that soft S,
the irony she was born
in Georgia and lies now
all too soon, in Alabama soil.

Some things are never right.
Some things are not better with time.
But maybe her name was perfect.
After all, how many of the stories
she told had a happy ending?

 

About the Author: Kory Wells is a poet, writer, storyteller, and advocate for the arts, democracy, afternoon naps, and other good causes. In 2017 she was named the inaugural poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she also founded and manages a reading series. Her poetry collection Sugar Fix is forthcoming from Terrapin Books. Read more of her work at korywells.com.

 

More By Kory Wells:

Untold Story

 

Image Credit: “Cooking spaghetti and frying chicken for a spaghetti supper at Grape Festival, Tontitown, Arkansas” (1941) The Library of Congress

 

“Untold Story” By Kory Wells

 

 

Untold Story

She was religious     about reading aloud
         Ann Landers’ advice in the Free Press
              Jello salad recipes in Good Housekeeping
                   letters and postcards from cousins
    and one odd relation    all the way in Australia.

         But neither of us ever     said a word about
the National Enquirer
         which she’d pick up in the Winn Dixie checkout
              next to the gum and chocolate bars     
    as if it were essential           as milk and sugar.

Back from the grocery
              on a summer afternoon
         she’d start supper
              and I’d slip away
          to the over-warm sanctuary
                             of her modest living room:
                   thin floral carpet   knotty pine walls
                       and a nubby mauve sofa where I—
                                  a sensitive and impressionable child—
              would spread the tabloid
and kneel before it

              to absorb    cover to cover
                           and back again
                                           until my knees ached
the gospel of my disbelief:
                    a moon-landing hoax    
         an alien abduction     a two-headed
                                 motherless kitten nursing
                           a domesticated squirrel
              and of course the secret
                                             lives of stars.

What is it that makes us want to swallow
         a story whole?      To think
                   only one version can be true?

We were not          true disciples
    but my grandmother      tended the altar of
                             narrative possibilities
         this woman with an eighth-grade education
                           who I never saw reading a book.

 

About the Author: Kory Wells is a poet, writer, storyteller, and advocate for the arts, democracy, afternoon naps, and other good causes. In 2017 she was named the inaugural poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she also founded and manages a reading series. Her poetry collection Sugar Fix is forthcoming from Terrapin Books. Read more of her work at korywells.com.

 

Image Credit: John Vachon “Grandmother MacDuffey with blackberries she has picked from nearby swamps. Irwinville, Georgia” (1938) The Library of Congress