In the Cross Maker’s Tent
Port St. Joe Seafood Festival
The old woman carved crosses from driftwood,
Displayed them on lattice board, ran balsa
Hands over one as she spoke: I find the pieces
Each morning, washed up from the bay. Some days,
Webs of seaweed tangle them, but I find the best
Pieces this way: hidden. I wanted to buy a carving,
Pictured her hands turning the wood, palms like wave-
Polished sea glass. Did she use a lathe? Did she plane
Or shave the wood? How often did she slip & slice
Skin from her palm? Outside, the festival continued:
People drifted by the tent, a steady rhythm of voices,
Like waves stealing sand. October wind rattled
The tattered canvas. Bruised clouds churned low
Over St. Joseph’s Bay. A sudden strobe of lightning.
She gestured west, swirled the air with one lined palm.
Indian summer. Rain’s coming she said. Storms, hail.
It’s the heat mixing with the coming cold. I chose
A gray cross with periwinkle inlays, felt the honed-
Down ridges, imagined her finding it after a sleepless
Night, carving it as the sea lay still, a sheet of glass.
How to Shuck an Oyster
Against intuition: turn hinge toward palm.
Insert blade where no crevice exists.
Believe the shell will open.
Salt will soak your steel wool glove.
Believe the blunt blade will split
The still-living mollusk in your hand.
Sit outside in November chill,
Listen to your brother’s words,
The timbre & tone. Don’t tell him
His mouth moves just like your father’s.
Don’t mention the trailed-off whispers,
Clipped syllables drawn from
His cinched croker-sack jowl.
Drink too much beer; stomp your feet.
Complain about the coastal cold,
The razor wind coming off the bay.
Dare him to eat one out of the shell.
Suck one down yourself, feel the freeze
Sieze your throat. Pretend you know him:
Your brother who never speaks of his dead
Father, this boy with sandstone eyes
& oyster-shell hands, calcite palms
That didn’t run over your father’s
Coffin that January. Pretend you forgave him.
Talk about the easy things: fishing,
A graphite rod spinning frozen shrimp
Into a white-capped sea, the line’s buzz
As a speck takes the bait, dives deep,
Bows the rod. Don’t talk about your
Brother’s hate of your father, the ghost
Bruises you still see on brother’s face,
The sick crack of bone you remember,
The saltwater silence that preserved
You all on the way to the hospital.
Plunge a hand into burlap darkness:
Grab another calcium-caked shell.
Pry with all your strength. So much mud
Between the cracks. So much salt.
Poem for Destin, Florida
Highway 98 empty. Mid November, cold wind
Off the Gulf of Mexico stirs sand in tiny tornadoes
That spin into oblivion. On Choctowatchee Bay,
Thick white caps crown a viscous cobalt aea.
Waves break on summer yachts moored in silent
Docks beneath East Pass Bridge. Come summer,
Tan bodies pack party barges. Beer & barbecue,
Margarita & shrimp will spice the salt
Wind. The din of classic rock & top 40 over
A persistent diesel drawl. But now, gulls echo above
Cracked sea shells strewn on white beachhead.
Sea shacks sit empty. Forgotten wind chimes
Ring on empty porches. Beyond Destin Harbor,
Condominiums crowd close, lean into the Gulf,
Empty save occasional retirees, reaping cheap time-
Shares & all-you-can-eat breakfasts. Raw bars &
Seafood joints stay open some nights. A few locals
Sway to a juke box playing the same memorized
Songs again & again. An occasional Christmas
Carol brings a sing-along chorus in the 70-degree
Night. A glacier moon freezes the sunset & shatters
Light into a million shards. Stars burn like bioluminescent
Fish, visible only in the deepest trenches, forgotten, alive.
Recently, I visited my hometown, Port St. Joe, Florida, a former mill town and fishing village on the Gulf Coast, some 35 miles east of Panama City. I took a long walk one morning down by St. Joseph’s Bay, and looking out over the still green water, I saw where the shallows dropped off into the deeper water of the bay. It was clear demarcation: visible sand then darkness. I found the contrast both beautiful and ominous. Only later did I realize that my thinking about art comes from having grown up by the Gulf of Mexico. For me, art is like St. Joesph’s Bay. You can see it, measure it, understand it–up to a point. Beyond that point is mystery, a place both exciting and dangerous, a place where you lose yourself and become a part of the art itself.
A Gulf Coast native, Jeff Newberry teaches writing and literature courses at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of print and online journals, including StorySouth, Anti-, The Cortland Review, New South, and The Florida Review. His chapbook, A Visible Sign, was nominated for the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s 2008 Book of the Year. He’s won scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference on Form and Narrative. He has presented papers and chaired panels at the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers and at the Flannery O’Connor and Other Georgia Writers’ Conference.