Joseph Bathanti is the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. He is currently a Professor of Creative Writing
at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Bathanti is the author of six books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal, which was nominated for The National Book Award, and won the 1997 Oscar Arnold Young Award from The North Carolina Poetry Council for best book of poems by a North Carolinian; Land of Amnesia; and Restoring Sacred Art, winner of the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize, awarded annually by the NC Literary and Historical Association. His first novel, East Liberty, winner of the Carolina Novel Award, was published in 200l. His latest novel, Coventry, winner of the 2006 Novello Literary Award, was published by Novello Festival Press. They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, his book of nonfiction, was published in early 2007. His collection of short stories, The High Heart, winner of the 2007 Spokane Prize, was published by Eastern Washington UP in Fall 2007.
He is the recipient of Literature Fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1994 (for poetry) and 2009 (for fiction); The Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, presented annually for outstanding contributions to the Fine Arts of North Carolina over an extended period; a Fellowship from The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry; the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize; the Ernest A Lynton Faculty Award for Professional Service and Academic Outreach; the Aniello Lauri Award for Creative Writing (in 2001 and 2007); the Linda Flowers Prize, the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize; the 2011 Donald Murray Prize; the 2012 Ragan-Rubin Award for Literary Achievement; the 2013 Mary Frances Hobson Prize; and others.
There is a mechanism,
perhaps secreted in the clitoris,
or even deeper, in the glint
of a blue eye registering fear
and desire commingled like blood
and milk that triggers migraine
in the throes of orgasm.
She will say four days later,
when the attack slackens
and she can brook speech,
after the flicker from a match head
and the killdeer crying no longer convulse her,
that it lit upon her like an angel
washed in blood –
Joan of Arc, ablaze
at the foot of the bed, beckoning.
Months can go by without one.
She forgets the pain,
like an amnesiac her name,
until the smell of overripe peaches,
a naked man asking, gently, "Shall I go on?"
and her own voice, lethean,
an octave from screaming,
the correct response eluding her.
Whether it was "No, don't stop"
or "Yes, don't stop."
No and Yes in tiny detonations.
Eyes rucked shut, she tries to pry away with her hands
the pinions attached to her temples.
Through gossamer eyelids
blue light bores the ceiling.
Off the sheet she levitates,
breasts like the shocked faces of newborns,
her soft belly, white
columns of her legs, dangling feet,
the black veil of long falling hair.
Scant scholarship exists on this particular devil.
Chastity remains the only medicine.
Sin is sin.
Hallucinations are not uncommon.
My Mother Falling
The cereal box is anathema,
too far back in the cabinet
for my arthritic mother to reach.
She’d rather topple from the stool
she drags over to climb than accept
the gnarled hand my father proffers.
Her fall is inevitable. Straight back
like a ponderous fish flailing for its bed of bones,
my father there to net her in his gray arms
gone to slag; the two of them,
husband and wife, annealed to each
other in the sacrament of Matrimony,
swooning into the ether,
before whatever soured.
Fifty-eight years they have perfected this ritual,
again and again, like high wire mates:
she falling, he catching
Yet today what’s ahead dissolves:
cable severed, transformer blown.
Lamps flicker, then snuff.
The hissing kettle sputters and expires.
Out of the kitchen they walk quietly,
through the dark silent apartment,
down the long ivory corridor,
pass through the glass front doors
and catch the streetcar
to the end of the line:
laving years off their long sentences,
before any of us,
The Little Noise
A rhythmic sough escapes the bathroom
where my mother showers.
Too much pressure on the tap,
the ancient plumbing convulses;
air, the culprit, trapped in the stream.
I pause outside the bathroom,
listen, then silently turn the knob
and peer into the steam.
Behind the marbled glass
shower door, her back’s to me,
bent body white as a clock face,
shower cap mushroomed on her head.
Astonished to still be alive
after all these years, she is the one—
making the little noise,
mewling like a lost violin,
scrabbling with a washcloth one-handed
to scrub herself, the last dignity;
clutching with the other the steel bar
my father riveted into the tile wall to steady her.
I close the door, pad across the hall
and sit on her bed, silver cane racked over the stead,
medicine bottles deployed and numbered
on her dresser doilies.
There are nights when she can’t undo the lids;
she starts to sweat, when all the give in her
relaxes and she leaks that noise,
the sound of love—
hate is a different noise—
but a love that shakes her
like a vile parent shakes a child
and she begins to cry.
My father and I finally get her to bed.
I say good night, walk the long hall
out of their apartment building,
behind each forgetful door
the conspiratorial murmur of TVs. At vigil,
my father, near-deaf, sits in the living room.
All night he listens for my mother,
as one listens for a bedded baby, straining
to reckon that sound, the little noise he’s heard
before, but can’t recall until his head
drops to his chest, flesh-colored hearing
aids like fetuses curled in his ears.