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    The Ballad of Laura Nelson


    Photo by Getty Images/rvimages.


           a. picture of evil #2898

    Mama Laura

    hangs from the eave

    of a bridge

    dress like a nightgown

    crook in her neck

    feigning sleep

    bare feet & fingers swollen

    with death’s whiskey


    this is the morning after

    the mob stormed the jail

    found her dark & vicious

    like a coyote cornered on

    a Guthrie-guilty road


    this is the morning after

    she was stretched &

    slaughtered by the stampede

    made haint

    of truss & trestle

    made wild in the wind

    like a panther prowling

    a Guthrie-guilty song


           b. picture of evil #2897

    bridge like an ark

    lined with livewire bodies

    ladies with wide hats

    parasols & children

    like shark teeth

    the river’s brush

    holds their dirty secrets

    coiled words gliding

    across troubled water

    evil themes in the overgrowth

    american justice

    in its infancy


    some dared say

    there was a baby

    left yonder by the riverside

    the birds & bees

    & butterflies

    pickin out its eyes


           c. picture of evil #2894


    i accused a Boy of stealing

    a line of pretty black horses

    a line about a book

    a book named for a lullaby

    sung by a mammy

    i accused him of a stealing a line about

    a land of unimaginable iniquity


    & so his Mother marched

    to the Principal’s office

    pulled my poems from her purse

    held them twisted like innards

    torn like petticoats

    a bunch of river reeds in her hand

    bruised with highlighter marks

    those scarlet letters

    raked between us

    with the teeth of pony combs

    she said i was a thief of allusions

    the Principal called for a moment

    of silence


    then the Mother

    wringing hands & poems


    “i’m just a bear for my son”

    (i’m just a virgin mary for my son)

    (i’m just a betsy ross for my son)

    (i’m just a rosie the riveter for my son)


    i had a little son then

    a black-brown watermelon

    seed of a boy


    & in a moment of silence

    i became even more grizzly

    the Boy’s plagiarized words

    became endangered bears

    i had skinned

    with my eyes


    she said that shit to me:

    i’m like a bear for my son

    & i thought

    sister, if you are the bear

    i am a cunt like a bear-trap

    the worst evil

    you can imagine

    that bear you thought you saw

    that you didn’t see

    the evil you see

    that ruins me

    yeah, she said that shit to me

    & i went wild inside & it

                   has never stopped

                            the going wild



           d. picture of evil #2899

    how you protect

    a Boy from that bridge

    how do i protect my Boy

    from that bridge

    when you are protecting

    the bridge with your Boy


    i’m going to braid & coat

    his little tongue

    with the iron edge of truth

    the sweetgrass memory of the river

    so he’ll know those tastes

    above all others


    you Pilgrim, you Cowboy, you Reader

    there is nothing unimaginable about iniquity

    this, our land, of iniquity

    of tis of thee

    on which we bear children

    considered burdens

    on which we farm barren wombs

    of unbearable blackness

    in these forests

    full of men more terrible

    than encroaching bears

    looking right

    into the camera



    Excerpted with permission from Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice, edited by Ron Riekki and Andrea Scarpino, published by Michigan State University Press, 2019.

    Published on Aug 21, 2019


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