Laura Long is the author of Imagine a Door: Poems (Turning Point, 2009), and her poetry and lyrical prose have been published in 32 Poems,Arts & Letters, Cimarron Review, Shenandoah,and many other magazines. Long has been honored by a James Michener Fellowship, PEN-Texas Award, and other writing awards. She teaches creative writing at Lynchburg College in Virginia, and she was born and raised in Buckhannon, West Virginia.
Miss Hoover’s Conch Shell
I didn’t know anyone who had left West Virginia,
except to go to war or to work in Ohio, until I met
Miss Hoover, my seventh-grade teacher, who in 1952
had ridden a train to Florida and had a conch shell to prove it.
The first day of school I examined its spiral surprise
and glossy, pink, rippled lip. Its shadowy opening invited
a small sinuousness to swirl in, curl up and hide.
“Put it to your ear and listen,” Miss Hoover commanded.
I was petrified and mesmerized, a bewitched mix,
by her raspy voice, round gold-wire glasses, and reputation
for being strict. I pressed my ear to this shell half
the size of my head. “It’s the sound of the ocean,” was all
she’d say. I closed my eyes and heard the blurred edge
between silence and quiet; a breathing without breath,
memory without image, mist without chill. I heard
the sound of a wave after the wave is fallen. I imagined
the quiet of ocean realms as sunlight falls through,
fading, the way light catches and fades while passing
through a green bottle on a windowsill, or a sunset spills,
watery rose and orange, through winter-bare trees.
Every day after lunch I slipped in early and listened
to the shell’s report of a place that didn’t know the hot
juice of summer tomatoes cut open, nor the shushing
rocking chair in my bedroom where I huddled all winter,
sweater-thick, reading to forget hunger. Book-words
counterpointed the angry voices of my parents
rising from the kitchen. I read the library’s copy of Keats
because one day in class Miss Hoover had burst out,
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” and recited
the ode before turning abruptly to the grammar lesson.
“Close bosom friend to the conspiring sun,” I read, knowing
my father would slam the door, the house tremble, fall
still, my mother seethe and turn to me for someone, something,
to smack. I thought of the conch clasping the morning-star
stillness of just before a rooster crows, the echo of twilight
after the great-horned owl asks “Who? Who-who?”
On the last day of school, Miss Hoover asked me to stay
after class. “I want you to give you the shell.” Her eyes
were blue, wary, terribly wise. She was an animal
I didn’t recognize. I sensed she had survived in ways
I couldn’t fathom. I placed the shell in its spot, next
to the globe. Knowing my mother would say I had stolen it,
I shook my head and stumbled out of Miss Hoover's
room. Then, as now, I didn’t know how to thank her.
Shirking the Shingles
When I can't see to nail another shingle
to my skinned roof, I shout to the morning,
hallelujah, hell fire, drop the hammer and zig
zag to the woods. Soon I'm skimming stones
across the creek that anchors this mountain
to the deep soak, the springs beneath. Ferns
sketch a wrinkled ripple. Deer step down to drink,
dark noses touching the dimpled water.
The fine lines of light spangling into creek-song
tell me that the ears of the mouse are as downy
and keen as the ears of the fox who hunts her.
I amble up the mountainside, taunted by crows,
hunting the tune of the wild apples that swell
year after year behind a ruined house next
to a tiny graveyard—but I can't find them—the apples,
the stumpy stones of grief. Instead, light shafts through
an opening in the trees, a glade of ferns turns
bottle green, glowing and still as an accidental
church, or a meeting place for fairies.
I nose homeward, recalling how my old dog
used to slink onto the porch after a wander,
coat prickly with burrs, eyes hot with secret joy.
Crash Anniversary #27
After supper, specks in the linoleum swirl,
the radio slurries shells of words
on tides of breath— fair-in-height, deaf-uh-sit—
I turn the knob, go to the porch
and swing, my bare feet not quite
brushing the floor, until every
word I've ever heard falls
asleep between whippoorwill
and I remember like the touch
of a finger on my neck
a letter from my brother—
not the words but the writing, the heavy
loops, like his hair—
tucked inside my Bible upstairs.
I don't often read that book anymore
but the letter floats there, a butterfly
inside a cancelled envelope.
Two Sisters, Below
She and I puzzled over the secrets of the cellar—
the swathes of spider webs clotting the shelves,
the gleam of fogged bottles, blotted
with mold and a trickle of liquid, a rusted
tin lid fixed in a grimace. And the leaves!
How did piles of dead leaves get in here,
layered and limp as mom's wedding dress
in the back of her closet? Where
there were no leaves, the floor oozed. On the other
side of the ceiling, Dad stomped and Mom
clip-clopped. Their voices began to rise
and snarl. Not quite shivering in the not quite dark,
we stared at beams that floated into graveyard
angels, wings knocked off, faces flattened to grain.