Poem of the Week | May 16, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Initiation” by Austin Segrest.

Poet and critic Austin Segrest is the author of Door to Remain (UNT Press, 2022), winner of the 2021 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize. His poems appear recently in POETRY, The Common, Ecotone, The Missouri Review online, Raritan, and Blackbird. He was a 2018-19 poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Born and raised in Alabama, he teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

 

Initiation

            There was so dense a veil of tangled foliage
            about it, that none but a sworn lover
            of gloomy recesses would have discovered
            the low arch of its entrance.
                        — Hawthorne

In north central Alabama, caves
are still being found. Holes
in the ground, holes in the hills—
too many to regulate. Steve took me
to one from his childhood in Warrior,
along beautiful Locust Fork.
No markers, you climb
an anonymous green hill.

Weirded out, even a little afraid
of this man who’d earlier invited me
into his apartment (already
entertaining two young men,
LDS missionaries in ties,
their bikes leaned against the porch
Steve shared with my friend),
now showing up at Mom’s
boldly seeking me out, I must have felt
like Dad before his LSD experiment.
Depthless dark, getting lost or trapped.

How did Steve pull it off?
37 to my 14, he looked
my mother in the eye, nice to meet you,
Susan, like a bible salesman,
yes mam, something you don’t mind
him getting dirty: the ritual
prelude to what wasn’t
unlike a first date. He’d gathered
beforehand she was single. Still,
in that reprehensibly reputable
suburb, it was ballsy.

With that trip north in Steve’s
stripped-down primer gray pickup,
I was led out (as it was said of girls)
into manhood, given away.
I drove, throwing the long,
soft clutch through four muddy gears.
Of the earthen veins beneath Warrior
so like the capillaries and ducts
Steve flushed as a dialysis
technician, I remember
graffiti in the first room;
shotgun shells; high and low,
a puzzle of tunnels; a slippery
board above an abyss.

 

Author’s Note

“Initiation” is the breakthrough poem of my new collection, Groom. It began in early 2019, three months into my seven-month fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as an attempt to explain my anomalous relationship with an enabling older man when I was a teen in the ’90s. Before P-town, I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing about these experiences in poems; nor did I think of the relationship as abusive. The poems (and therapy) have shown me differently. By May I had a very rough draft of a book, which, along with my feelings about it all, I’ve continued to work on. The project’s title plays on the word “groom” in three ways: the predatory practice of grooming; interspersed close-readings of Caravaggio’s sixteenth-century painting of the conversion of Saul, featuring Saul’s groom holding back his horse; and Biblical marriage imagery, specifically from The Song of Songs.

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