The invitation requested “the honor
of their presence” at this small-town
black tie affair. In the 1920s,
when this sepia photo must have been taken,
corsets and stiff collars prove that they belong.
A rose lies to the right of each place setting,
a dark contrast to the pale sheen emanating
from every surface—every person—
in this narrow room.
The eye is drawn to the blistering
white linen, the way it curves, embraces
The dinner table’s vanishing point
hazes into darkness at the far end of the room—
a dimness from which everyone looks away.
Only three men acknowledge
the photographer’s presence,
turning their faces toward the camera.
Each is dressed in the fashion of the times—
——-two seated men in smart, black suits, and
——-one man in a white sheet and pointed hat,
——-presiding over the party.
He turns black under my closed eyelid,
an afterimage that burns hotter
than the match that singes his fingertips at night.
When I was a child, a flaming cross
lit the lawn of this town’s only black family,
fire throwing light on the misspelled slur—
“Go home, nigers”—painted on their garage.
Walking to school the next day,
I saw charred grass
and an empty home. A for sale sign
slid into the readymade hole
in their yard.
“Who was he?” I ask my town’s historian.
——-“I wish we could read the programs
——-at each place setting
——-on this lovely fall dinner table!
——-But I have no details
——-about this photo. Sorry.”
That lovely table, covered with
a cloth woven and stitched
tighter than their lips.
When he was lonely,
my father used to run his fingertips
over my stubby nails,
smeared with fuchsia polish
I bought at a garage sale.
He wore away the edges of my nails.
He tucked my hand inside of his
when we prayed at Grace Brethren Church.
Divorce can make the supplication
of six years and twenty-seven
sound the same.
We prayed in the wrong church—
——-we weren’t Brethren.
We hid from sidelong glances
at his parents’ Alliance,
where every service started with
——-“We’re Together Again” on the organ,
where our half-family left
too much space in the pew.
He set our fused, closed fist on top of his Bible,
asking God to take
our split-down-the-middle family—
and stitch it together.
When he left for Florida sunshine,
my hands cracked in Ohio cold,
my body breaking open each time
he said my name on the telephone,
my body sinking to the floor
years later, when a stranger called
from my father’s phone to say
Your dad didn’t suffer. It was instant.
Not much blood in his truck, even.
After I buried him, my tongue
stuck to the roof of my mouth each time
I knelt to take communion, the wine cup
and brittle wafer hidden in my hands,
where penitents could not see my faith turn cold,
where they could not see me look back
like Lot’s nameless wife,
back to grass covering my father’s bones.
The Gospel of Mark says that everyone—
——-daughters who hide
——-the body of Christ
——-between their palms—
will be salted with fire, as if the sting of salt
or the crackle of my own skin could frighten me
more than the memory
of sprinkling dirt on his grave.
Wax singed my hands
as my mouth sang holy,
the chorus of Silent Night
and my grandmother’s contralto
lilting through the nave.
Tiny flames and flickering light
illuminated each face
in my family’s church, a candle
in the hand of every singing penitent—
their fingers still, unburned.
White wax blistered my skin—
a punishment, fleeting stigmata:
I stole the birth of Christ,
——-this candlelit memorial for the Virgin,
and thought only of my father,
interred in the cemetery
behind the church parking lot,
without the warmth of a fire,
this small flame in my hands.
When my mother says, “I shouldn’t have
divorced your dad,” my hands blister
under hot water. Strangers ask if I’ve been burned.
No, half of all marriages end with a father
closing a door. The pater noster prayer slits
my tongue with a tungsten carbide knife.
My eyes have all the fire of a passamezzo,
a dance that died for lack of touch, a cold parting.
My mother asks why I’m stained,
my pale mouth cracking under stained glass,
and I wonder if Tiffany’s stomach still hurts.
In fourth grade, I punched her, felt her body
close around my fist. Her parents always smiled.
Even then, I knew my father would die.
Ohio choked me with funeral home flowers,
and the road is stained with his blood,
half my body. Cemetery grass taunted me,
licked my heels and made me run, fly.
I’m more likely to die
on the way to the airport than in the plane,
my grandmother warns.
Words that sutured my lips
drowned in the engine’s low roar.
I drop a handful of pounds into the stained cap
of a clubfooted man. He begs for
gleaming mercy outside Westminster Abbey.
I keep enough coins to buy a rose cookie
at afternoon tea. Here, the wafting flower smell
does not stain my heart, does not split my tongue.
Lost in the Graveyard
Twelve cornflowers by the roadside,
these windblown memorials—
harsher than glass in my mouth.
During wartime, marble gods hide
in stone-hewn ditches, hawks alighting
on the statues’ impotent hands.
Will counting the chipped pieces
of cemetery stone, glinting like Apollo
in October sun, shorten the days?
“What do you want?” my stepmother asked
when I told her I loved her. Rain-softened ground
sinks under my heels, her words burning in my throat.
I want to bury my face in the mud
next to the stone that bears my father’s name.
I want to eat the grass and steal him from God.
I was asleep as my father took his final breath—
a heavy rattle in his lungs. A heart larger
than a peach stone would have kept me awake.
Where do I go when home
has crumbled, when the foundation
has turned to ash in my hand?
“It’s a good thing I didn’t die,”
my sister said. “What would you do then?”
I would sleep. I would swallow Midwestern dust.
As a child, my mother stole apples
from the neighbor’s orchard. Bruised fruit
fell from her hands and pocked the road home.
Siate immortale, I want to tell her. When we buried
my father, my mother’s welts and scars
turned purple, and she forgot when I was born.
Prayer grinds my bones, digs a crevasse
in the road that stretches from me
to the yellowing light of home.
Kristin M. Distel earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at Ashland University, and she is currently a doctoral student at Ohio University, where she is studying literature. Her poems have been published in DIN, Coldnoon, The Minetta Review, Flyover Country Review, and The Broken Plate, and she is the poetry editor of The Critical Pass Review. Kristin’s article on Toni Morrison’s Paradise was published in Women’s Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). Five articles on Theodore Roethke, Edgar Allan Poe, Natasha Trethewey/Larry Levis, Phillis Wheatley/Mather Byles, and William Faulkner, respectively, are forthcoming. She has presented papers at The University of Oxford, The Sorbonne/École des Mines, The University of Manchester, the American Literature Association, and many other venues.