Poem of the Week | April 09, 2013

This week we’re featuring a poem by Katie Bickham, winner of this year’s Editor’s Prize. The poem features in our brand new Editor’s Prize spring issue, 35.5 (the ladder issue). Katie Bickham was born and raised in the Deep South and finds much of her writing turning itself toward her home state of Louisiana. After receiving her BA in English and MA in Liberal Arts from Lousiana State University in Shreveport, Katie took Steinbeck’s maxim (“You can never really write about a place until you leave it”) to heart, and is nearing the completion of her MFA at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.  Her poems have appeared in Deep South Magazine and The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry.

Author’s Note:

How much does place affect the people we become?  And not just the place as it is now, but the history of the place?  Do buildings and walls remember, and if so, do they speak?  And if so, are we listening?  These poems are taken from a collection called The Belle Mar. The Belle Mar is a fictional plantation in South Louisiana (loosely based on a real one called The Belle Rive). Each poem in the work takes place in a different room in the house in a different year.  All my life I have felt stretched between a deep love of my home and something very near disgust for it. Am I who I am because of Louisiana’s grim history, or in spite of it? These poems try to “squeeze the universe into a ball” (or a house), with the house itself bearing witness to the ugliness, beauty, the hatred of others, the hatred of self, and the ghosts that haunt its own walls. How have we changed? How have we failed to? If we think of our own hearts as having many chambers, many rooms, which are the ones we keep locked? Which are the ones we, ourselves, are locked inside?

Widow’s Walk, 1917

The word came that seven hundred thousand
bodies had drawn their last breaths at Verdun,
an earth-quaking number for those unacquainted
with the greedy appetites of death.
She had never been across the sea, but pictured
the corpses laid in neat rows like chopped cane
at harvest time.


“Apologies, ma’am,” came Small John’s voice
from the rear stairs.  “I’d’a sent Roberta,
but she scared fiercely of high places.
You got to come down. The sun will cook
you through.”


Five weeks her husband had been gone,
and she hadn’t even heaved a sigh until
she’d tried to fasten her silver bracelet on her own,
a task best suited to a second pair of hands.
Sweating, she gripped the chain until the metal
grew hot in her palm.


“Ma’am?” Small John tried again.  Without
turning, she could feel him moving closer.
Had he ever touched her once in these long years?
“Roberta said you in a fury.”


She turned from the iron railing and flung
the bracelet at him hard.  It hit his shoulder,
tinkled as it fell onto the slate.
He lifted it by one end like a snake
and walked toward her.  “I’d’a gone, too,”
he said.  “Over there to fight. ‘Cept I don’t
see like I ought to, and my knee ain’t right.”


He watched her as if she might bolt
over the edge, body set to lunge. Her
temper cooled quick, the way Louisiana
afternoons went from sweltering to raising
shivers on skin before a hurricane
blew in from the gulf.  “Small John?” she asked.
She held her shaking wrist out to him, her jaw
and throat and chest all gone hot and raw.


She thought he might throw it back at her,
but he looked at her straight on, barely glanced
down as he slipped the tiny teeth
of the clasp together around her wrist, never
once touched her skin.