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About this poet

Born in 1961, Judy Jordan grew up on a small farm near the border between the Carolinas. Her parents were sharecroppers, and Jordan was the first member of her family to attend college, receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia in 1990. In 1995, she went on to earn a master's degree in poetry at the same school.

She has taught at the University of Virginia and Piedmont Virginia Community College, and in 1996 she received a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

Her first poetry collection, Carolina Ghost Woods (Louisiana State University Press, 2000), was selected by James Tate to receive the 1999 Walt Whitman Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of 60 Cent Coffee And A Quarter To Dance: A Poem (2005). Jordan has completed two novels and is currently at work on a full-length play, and a memoir.

She recently earned a master's degree in fiction from the University of Utah. She now lives in a cabin, that she built herself, in the Shawnee National Forest, where she is working on a non-fiction book about her experiences there.

Help Me to Salt, Help Me to Sorrow

Judy Jordan
In the moon-fade and the sun’s puppy breath,
  in the crow’s plummeting cry,
in my broken foot and arthritic joints,
                                       memory calls me
to the earth’s opening, the graves dug, again, and again 
I, always I am left
                   to turn away
into a bat’s wing-brush of air.

That never changes . . .
  not this morning, not here

where I’ve just found
in the back of my truck, under the rubber mat, 
in a teacup’s worth of dirt, 
where it seems no seed could possibly be 
a corn kernel split to pale leaves and string-roots.

It’s a strange leap but I make it
and bend to these small harvests

because somewhere in North Carolina there was a house
  and in it, my room and my bed,
bare boards and the blood stains of a man
that in each slant rain’s worried whispers puddles to the cries of a slave, 
murdered in 1863 trying to escape.

Somewhere there was a child who slept
on the living room’s red-vinyl couch

who still matters

especially now that I can’t remember when the creek
  that bounded our family farm led to an ocean
or when a boxcar’s weather-wasted letters spelling Illinois
  meant somewhere there was an Illinois.

It’s still 1976--
the day after I’ve been seen playing tennis
  with a black boy, and it seems I will always
be held at gunpoint and beaten
as if the right punch would chunk out his name.

             --------

No, it’s 1969--
The year my mother becomes a wax paste, 
or so she looks to the child I was,

and she drips into the pink satin 
and I learned the funereal smell of carnations.
That year the moon was still made of green cheese. 
That year men first bagged and labeled that moon.

There are no years, only the past
and I still don’t know why Odell Horne 
  pulled a shotgun on my brother 
  or how the body contains so much blood.
I still don’t know why Donna Hill went to Myrtle Beach 
and three days later came back dead.

For ten years I lived with Louise Stegall,
the lover of my father, one of her four men, all buried--
  suicide, murder, drink, again murder.
It was after the second one that she sat stock still 
and silent, four years in the asylum.
Now she walks the road all day, 
picking up Cracker Jack trinkets 
  to give to children
                     brave enough to approach her.

When I was nine, the starling pecked outside her window  a whole week. 
Somebody’s gonna die, she said
and made me hug Uncle Robert’s neck 
as if I couldn’t know he’d be gone in two hours, 
as if I hadn’t learned anything about people
                                        and their vanishing.
The last time I saw her she wouldn’t look at me, 
  jerked her sweatshirt’s hood across 
her face and stepped into the ditch, 
as though there are some things even she won’t tell, 
as though I’ve never known it’s dirt and dust after all--
the earth’s sink and the worms’ castings.

                 --------

With the wet leaves thick on my steps,
the evening sky bruised dull gray to black,

when I’ve spilt salt and as the saying goes the sorrow and tears, 
and the stove is cold so salt won’t burn, 
tell me my pocket of charms can counter any spell.

Tell me again the reason for my grandfather’s fingers 
afloat in the Mason jar on the fireplace mantel 
between the snuff tin and the bowl of circus peanuts. 
What about the teeth in the dresser bureau,
the sliver of back bone I wear around my neck?

Again the washed-out photo in the family album, 
Pacific wind lifting the small waves onto Coral Beach,
clicking the palm trees’ fronds.
Again my father’s rakish grin,
  his bayonet catching a scratch of sun,
his left foot propped on the stripped and bloodied body.

                            Behind him, a stack of Japanese.

                  --------

Let me believe in anything.
Doesn’t the grizzled chicken dig up hoodoo hands?
Won’t the blue door frame, the basket of acorns protect me;
what about the knife in a pail of water?

When giving me the dead’s slippered feet
                                        room to room,
why not also synchronicity’s proof, 
  a wish and the tilted ears of angels?

I want to believe in the power of rosemary 
knuckled along the fence
even as the stars order themselves 
  to an unalterable and essential law.
I want the wind-whipped leaves to settle 
  and the flattened scrub to right itself,
want the loose tin in the neighbor’s shed
                                         to finish its message.

When this season in its scoured exactitude shifts closer, 
give me Devil’s Blue Boletus through the piled leaves, 
the slender green of Earth Tongue, 
phosphorescent Honey Tuft dispatched by the dead.

Their voices coming nearer, almost deciphered.

Whatever lies you have
there in that nail-clipping of time,
                                    give them to me.

From Carolina Ghost Woods, forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press, spring 2000. Copyright © 1999 by Judy Jordan. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

From Carolina Ghost Woods, forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press, spring 2000. Copyright © 1999 by Judy Jordan. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Judy Jordan

Judy Jordan

After growing up as the child of sharecroppers, Judy Jordan draws on these experiences for her first collection of poetry which won the 1999 Walt Whitman Award

by this poet

poem
In winter’s spider-eyed light strung through steam grates, the tunnels turn feral.
This is the other city, the dark one
of hidden passages, runaways and orphaned days

and like me it sleeps in broken buildings
and smells of a sad suicide from the fifteenth century, and like me
it has smoked three things on the