Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BILLY, by KAREN SWENSON



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

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BILLY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Returning to the beginning
Last Line: And descend the hill balanced in their weight.
Subject(s): Children; Death; Winter; Childhood; Dead, The


Returning to the beginning
that is no longer there,
I look up at the gray, stone house on the hill
with its petunia-edged terrace
and face the open account of memory.

My mother says,
"The Blisses are pressing apples.
They've promised us two gallons."
So I climb the hill
through the rusting autumn grass
where chickens used to rummage
red in their feathers among apple trees
split open like winter walnuts.

And memory returns
raw as the pink and shiny skin
under a picked scab.

We belly-whopped down the hill,
the snow spuming into our faces,
bouncing off hidden rocks
until the sled threw us at the bottom.
We lay laughing in winter dust
blinking up at the sun
and made angels in the snow before,
two hands on the rope,
we dragged the sled -
a mutual tail waggling over rock -
back up the hill
to come down again and try
to override our angels to a new mark.

And all the time I dragged the sled
with one hand
the smell of apples grows stronger
until I breach the top of the hill
and there is Eddie, the elder brother,
astride the press ramming the apples down its maw,
while the yellow jackets circle him
drunk and lazy with oozing juice
and the sun that ripens the falling leaves.

The parents, Eddie, and I speak
as though there is
no voice missing,
no silence that has lived
twenty years amongst us.

Then I walk down again,
a gallon of apple juice in each hand,
and stop halfway to rest,
to look over the trees at the pond
where Billy and I took out the rotted raft.
It sank beneath our weight
as we shouted at each other to jump off
and left us floundering
in fear of the resident snapping turtle.
But he jumped first

without a splash one summer
when I was away.
The letter came
to the house where my mother kept her vigil
over my dying grandmother.
I remember the gingham oilcloth on the table,
my mother's voice reading
his mother's letter.
The gingham marched across the table
marking out shining squares of years.
I knew as the survivor I had inherited a life.
The tablecloth paired empty squares
waiting to be filled.

I smell my hands, rich
from the apple grasp of their fingers
as we shook good-bye among the petunias
dying against the gray, stone house.
There are no rafts on the pond.
My mother's grandchild rides this hill in winter.
I pick up the gallon jugs
and descend the hill balanced in their weight.





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