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Meghan Sterling

Names for Ghosts

Birthday Parties

Names for Ghosts

Of Winchester, Lynchburg, Manchester, Tullahoma,
Walmart, Tractor Supply and Hammer’s,
Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel gathering dust
in the backs of tall cupboards, or the hard edges
of wire fences with cattle hair caught in barbed tufts,
fences in rectangles that line the outskirts of town, just beyond
the fields planted thick with soybeans. Of Abandoned balers.
Of El Taqueria and the Tyson Chicken Coops, the scratch
of the pullets, Combines tawny with grain, vegetable plots
smaller each year, columbines, foxglove, the rusting Ford
in the driveway beside the collapsed tobacco barn,
or the silo silhouetted at sunset, its endless rush of grain
down the chute. Of the Butcher at Bates, Dinah Shore Boulevard
and Ethel, Carolyn, Darwin, Odelle, Sid and Gene,
Lyle, Mr. Tabb, Ruby, Tom, or the farm next door,
the barns’ jagged boards slick with rot, swept clear
and home to a trailer, some horses penned into a pasture
where the corn used to grow. Where we led my brother
and shrank back into the cornsilk. Gone. Even their names.
Benny. Giles. Harold. Of men, and sweat, and denim
coveralls and boots wet with muck. Of the sour smell of milk
in the dairy barn, its sticky floor, its steaming hose.
Of rusted nails planted deep in the dirt.

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Birthday Parties

Journeying my family’s South, this is where we arrived each year:
boardwalks across swamp, the stink of dead crabs sunk in the murk,

Spanish moss like veils hiding the faces of all the trees. I would whisper,
we would go blind if we saw their sorrow. We would die of it. I knew there were secrets,

I had found the newspaper clippings, heard mention the words murder, madness.
My aunt as a child drawing the faces of her family without mouths, without eyes,

screaming soundlessly, as though words would do nothing but shatter the dishes
displayed in the hutch.  I tell you this because I want you to know all the things,

the way history watches, like a mirror left in an abandoned house, like grass on a grave.
Every year, our birthday parties were held in the island built with poured cement

at the center of the swamp. We’d hide in the holes left by the diggers to kiss or try
a cigarette. My mother would stare absently into the forest, her love hidden, woven like braids

into the mangroves’ tendrils. How silent she kept at the swamp, a coin tossed into the nexus
of the murk, wishes made each year with a hollow echo bouncing off the muck

as I grew longer and more afraid of what she was hiding. How each year I crept those boardwalks
as though circling into the center of the conch, crawling to the only place that could sound

into the darkness, words the only way in, the only way out.

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Meghan Sterling’s work is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Rhino Poetry, Colorado Review, Poetry South, and many others. Her debut poetry collection, These Few Seeds (Terrapin Books), came out in 2021 and was a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize in Poetry. Her chapbook, Self-Portrait with Ghosts of the Diaspora (Harbor Editions) her collection, Comfort the Mourners (Everybody Press) and her collection, View from a Borrowed Field, which won Lily Poetry Review’s Paul Nemser Book Prize, are forthcoming in 2023. 

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