Jan 212011

Editor’s Note (Jan 13, 2012): Amanda Jernigan’s book Groundwork, from which these poems were excerpted, was named one of the top five poetry books of 2011 by NPR.

Amanda Jernigan writes poems that make your brain fizz with their rhetorical flourish, the chops and changes of her lines, their dense, active language, their allusiveness, and their brawny intelligence. She writes out of what she calls a scholarly aesthetic, a formal and referential rootedness in tradition and wide-reading. Besides poems, she writes essays and plays. She is a contributing editor at The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries. With her partner, the artist John Haney, she has produced limited-edition books and broadsides under the imprint Daubers Press. Her work has been published and performed in Canada, the United States, and Germany, and is featured in the online archive of the Poetry Foundation. The dog’s name is Ruby. The photos are by John Haney.

These  five poems are from Amanda’s first collection Groundwork: poems, published by the exciting Canadian literary press Biblioasis in fall, 2011.

Groundwork comprises three poetic sequences, the first situated on and around an archaeological dig in modern-day Tunisia, the second situated in and out of a distinctly heterodox Garden of Eden, the third testing the waters of Homer’s Odyssey as a medium for the working-out of the relationship between artist and traveller. Written over a period of eight years, alongside other, unconnected lyrics, these poems represent stages in the development of a poet’s thinking about language and place; at the same time, they form a series of parallel meditations on past, present, and the mythological constructs with which we seek to join them. —Amanda Jernigan



Five poems from the sequence “First Principals”

From Groundwork

By Amanda Jernigan



The time, if time it was, would ripen
in its own sweet time. One thought of dawn.
One felt that things were shaping up,
somehow, that it was getting on.

Day broke. Upon the waters broke
in waves on waves unbreaking and
night fell, unveiling in its wake
one perfect whitened rib of land.

I slept, and while I slept I dreamed,
a breaking wave, a flowering tree,
and all of one accord I seemed.
I woke, and you divided me.



The Birds of Paradise

Adam and Eve and Pinchme
went down to the river to bathe.
Adam and Eve were drowned.
Who do you think was saved?

Between her pills, his poisons,
the water in which we bathe
is less than pure: I rather doubt
that even I’ll be saved.

My pet canary, William, died.
But, I am reassured,
there is a factory upstream
to replicate the bird

in polyvinyl chloride: moving
parts, a voice-box cheep —
with proven nightengalish means
of putting one to sleep.

Do I wake or sleep? Indeed,
the answer is the same.
Ask Finnegan. In fact, ask me,
if you can guess my name.




Adam at the Altar

The name shall answer to the beast
………………………..without a moment’s staying:
fish and fowl — and flesh, not least —
………………………..all honour-and-obeying.
But save your ‘wilt thou’, parish priest:
………………………..for she goes without saying.



All make-believe amounting to pretending
to the throne, I banished Eve, and Adam,
loath to go it on his own, went after.
That year the grapes fermented on the vine,
the fields lay fallow. I thought I’d take a stab
at beekeeping, but years have passed: you almost
wouldn’t know there was a garden here. The streams,
uninterrupted, flow from Eden as they always did.
The apple trees, untended, go to crab.



Imagine it, Adam: old woman and grey,
I found myself walking again in the garden,
the trees in full fruit as they were on that day.
Therein lies the question: again, did I eat?
Again. It was as we remembered. More sweet.

—Amanda Jernigan

See also “Adam’s Prayer,” “Bats,” and “Lullaby.”

Jan 202011

Here is the first in a new series of Numéro Cinq essays called “Childhood.” The idea is for writers to evoke the place, time and ethos of their childhood in words and pictures, not childhood in general but a particular childhood, not their children’s childhood but their own. Steven Axelrod has been writing on and for NC almost from the beginning. He’s a very witty and loquacious participant in NC contests and a fine observer of the world in his own Open Salon.com column. He wrote a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece about Nantucket. I had often heard him talking about his father, and so it seemed appropriate to ask someone like Steve, for whom childhood was so important, to write about his childhood. As a point of entry, it’s helpful to know that Steve’s father was George Axelrod who wrote the play The Seven Year Itch and the screenplays for such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, and How to Murder your Wife.



By Steven Axelrod




Dog Days

For years I wanted a dog desperately. Wandering the stacks of the New York Society Library on 79th street, I discovered the works of Albert Payson Terhune, and with a boyish, single- minded passion, shared his love for a succession of collies and hunting dogs in books like Lad: a Dog, Buff: a Collie and Lochinvar Luck. Terhune is largely forgotten now, possibly because he really didn’t seem to like people very much. His works introduced me to a number of racial epithets which my Mom used as teaching tools, to explore the fascinating world of human bigotry. “’Chink’ is what people call the Chinese, so they can feel superior to them,” she informed me. “It’s fun to feel superior to other people, especially when you’re not.”

She was stubborn on the subject of dogs, though, knowing full well that the bulk of the care and feeding of any pet would fall on her. And of course we lived in an apartment, not the ideal environment for a herding animal; but Central Park was just three blocks away.


I actually found my dog in the park during a dreary Sunday softball game with a bunch of kids I didn’t like, a group I didn’t want to be part of, the uncool group at school. But during a long, dreamy session in the outfield (even in this crowd, I played deep left), I struck up a conversation with a lady walking a collie. Someone scored a homerun during our conversation, but the dog was due to have pups in a few months, and the lady took my number. She called me when the litter arrived. Even at age nine, I was much better at chatting up interesting strangers than I was at baseball, where I achieved a rare incompetence trifecta: I couldn’t hit, throw or catch. I could run all right, but I preferred not to.

The images release themselves, out of order, seemingly at random: my collie darting back and forth ecstatic in his first Central Park snowfall, taking a bite from a drift and leaping away, barking loud enough to wake up all of Fifth Avenue; and his snout, pressed to the rear window of the car that took him away two years later, when my allergies made keeping him impossible. And the counselor at camp that summer, who built a splendid impossible tower of tooth-picks and threw it into the final bonfire, the flames torching it all at once, the sudden light blinding, the heat intense, the crackle deafening and the column of smoke rising like a cobra from a basket, its hood dispersing against the high clear stars.

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Jan 172011

Here’s Gwen Mullins writing about life in Chattanooga (where once I spent a dramatic couple of hours wandering along Missionary Ridge and imagining the amazing battle that took place there–I’d just driven up from Americus and the Andersonville prison camp: part of my Civil War pilgrimage). Gwen is a former student of mine, just graduated at the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a fiction writer, but with this graceful essay and her recent contribution to NC on story plot, you can see she as dab hand at nonfiction as well, a woman of letters.


Your whole life

You have lived your whole life here. Your life entire spent within thirty (fewer, really) miles of country along the kissing corners of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama. The Tri-State, they call it here. Or Tri-County, for the hospital.

You have traveled a little, but only a little. Some places stand out as bright, clear spots outlined in black in your place memories: San Francisco, Miami, Venice, New York City, New Orleans, Anchorage. Places that seemed exotic but are not. You long to visit other places: Nantucket, Kyrgyzstan, Milan, Edmonton, Indianapolis, Cupertino. You tell yourself you can read about them and in reading, you will be there.

Scenic City

This place, the Tennessee Valley, is overwhelmingly green. Neither bright nor dark, but only green. Green for long stretches of spring, summer, and into autumn. Until recently, even the winters were green. And the rivers run brownly green through the green hills you call mountains.
See Rock City! You’ve seen the signs. This advertising genius of Garnet Carter and Clark Byers resulted in 900 painted barn roofs by the 1950s. You‘ve seen Rock City. Better sights come from the bridges, from Raccoon Mountain (the mountain with TVA generators jammed deep in its belly), from all the forest parks. They call Chattanooga the Scenic City because it is. You avoid Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, Rock City, the Delta Queen riverboat, Point Park – anything that charges admission. You love Chickamauga Battlefield, Cloudland Canyon, Missionary Ridge, your own backyard and front lawn.You can buy See Rock City!-barn-shaped birdhouses painted in red and black in the souvenir shops across from the Choo-Choo. Yes, there really is a Choo-Choo, only now it’s a Holiday Inn. You remember how in Italy they all seemed to know the Glenn Miller song, how they would begin, “Track Twenty Ni-ine” in their lovely accented English. You wonder at the power of song, of words that transport, that tie the world together.

The old freight depot houses your husband’s office. It is LEED certified, green in the new sense. Yesterday he turned in his notice, so you suppose it’s not his office anymore. You are proud that your city has the first LEED-certified movie theatre, The Majestic. This is part of the downtown revitalization, the focus on the new green. You agree when some people call it gentrification, but you love the new restaurants.
You avoid eye contact with the Jamaican man with the dreadlocks and tangled gray beard who sometimes sleeps in the engine building where the electric buses now spend the night. He sells perfumes and bent metal figurines, and if you ask, other things.

You tell visitors that the Walnut Street Bridge is the longest pedestrian-only bridge in the United States. You are pretty sure this is true. On this bridge families stroll, cyclists bike, athletes run, photographers frame shots, but no vagrants dwell. From here you can see the other bridges, the Tennessee River, the aquarium, the art museum. You love the way the wind whips your hair on this bridge, how it’s always a little cooler here than the rest of the town.

You know, as does everyone, the best fried chicken is on MLK across from the university at a joint called “Champy’s.” You love that the city schools and churches hold fish fries under canopies in parking lots every Saturday in summer to raise money for choir trips and cheerleaders’ uniforms. Down the street a ways from Champy’s is a bleak building with a red-lettered sign that says, “Memo’s” and underneath that, “Chopped Wieners, Pit Bar-B-Q.” This sign has always amused you, but this is not a part of town where you stop.


You flinch and are quick to defend when others who do not wish to lay claim to this land call it backward, or racist, or ignorant, or poor. And then a waitress asks you who your infant daughter’s father is even while she sits between you and your husband. She asks because your daughter’s skin is more mocha than cream.

And then you stop at the gas station in Marion County next to Big Daddy’s Fireworks Warehouse, and you note the Confederate flags for sale, the barefoot two-year-old wearing a heavy diaper and chugging steadily from a clear bottle of greenish soda while his young mother buys four dollars in lottery tickets and three dollars of gas.

You walk among the azaleas on the Cumberland Trail on Signal Mountain (which is not really a mountain, but a big hill and a town who whose inhabitants named it Mountain) and remember how your small, bent grandmother, the one you called “Nanny,” put her thumbprint in the middle of each biscuit so it would rise. You try not to remember the words she used to describe her new neighbors when they moved in across the street. You think instead of how she would hold your hand and point at the hang gliders drifting on the currents and you cried out for the joy of flight. You did not know the story of Icarus then, and your grandmother never did.

You smirk that school children (except perhaps those from Sand Mountain just across the Alabama state line) are no longer required to go to the moving diorama called the “Confederama” as a “history” field trip. They have re-named the attraction but are fooling no one. You hear they are shutting down due to tax issues and you are glad.

And sometimes you walk through the cemetery next to the university. Half of the cemetery is Jewish, the other half Confederate. Both are peaceful, both are green.

This is just what you do

You surround yourself with funny, smart people who eat sushi (because that’s a sign of progressiveness here) and start to think that this world used to be divided by color but now it is all just green, and beautiful, and it is a world where you are happy to bring up your children.

You smile, greet, and nod at strangers, and they smile back. You make gravy with the pan drippings from pork sausage blended with flour, salt, and milk. And just a little black pepper. You press your thumb in the center of biscuits so they will rise properly. You pull to the side of the road for funeral processions and wait until they pass. This is just what you do here.

Your spouse who grew up in Newark tells you other places are not so green or so welcoming. You stop thinking how much you want to leave this place, so you buy a bigger house and its associated mortgage. You plan to travel, you even take some of the trips you have planned. You think about going to one of the eleven Protestant churches within two miles of your home. You admire the view from your veranda.

And the cost of living is low. You know this because your New York and Miami relatives (your husband’s relatives, actually, since your family all lives here) have told you how much their tiny condominiums cost and marvel at your square footage. You are pleased and embarrassed, as if you chose to live here for the expense savings.

Your whole life, so far

You remember the progressiveness is a veneer, and you accept that the men (except for your husband, whom you always remember is not from around here) wait for you to exit the elevator first because you have a uterus. You are, after all, the boss of many of these men, and that is, for here, progressive enough.

You encourage your daughter to consider universities in Chicago or Ithaca. You try not to analyze the feeling that settles on you when she applies to schools in Nashville. Are you disappointed? Are you relieved? You remind yourself that your life is not hers, that her life will not be yours. She will leave this place, or maybe you will.

You reprimand your son for talking like a redneck, or, when the mood strikes him, like a gangster. You do not examine what you mean by terms like “redneck” and “gangster.”

You try not to flinch when your short stories are compared to Flannery O’Connor’s not because they are good, but rather because they are occasionally southern and you are female. You do not point out the irreverence inherent in them. Flannery was, above all, a godly woman.

You finally admit your deep weakness for sad, old country ballads, and you think of writing one before realizing you already are. You see the hills you call mountains everywhere you go, hemming you in, holding you up. You cannot escape the sound of the train’s whistle. You are bathed in green.

– Gwen Mullins