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Two poems by Shelby Stephenson

The Man Not Right              to the memory of Azel G. Manning, 1878-1952 For several decades The sun seemed dark for sorrow, his monument By the side of the road reminder That he tied his horse to one parking meter Downtown (I saw this) to preach and sway passersby To follow the Man who scarred his hands For their life-stories, As they might forgive themselves To hear his – Azel’s – tales of woe untutored In his art as fourth-marriage vows, While the new-made bride Waited for short spaces to breathe Her story free of tedium Of his purge, His wild looks binging Deep in the churchyard’s quaking Graves: he called himself the “High Knocker of the Lord,” While his beard trembled before and after times He unhooked the bridle from his horse That clopped for Muses that sang for nearby privies. Dogs liked him. And why not. His little Bible in his hand he also traveled in trains, As listeners tuned their ears to his spells Grounded in throes for those whose lives Missed his mystical proportions; he swore by circumstance Never to lose his soul to houses of gold. He made his living selling produce.

My Sweetheart My sweetheart writes from Mule City, A non-rodeo town, a pity, She says, underneath all the straight Shoving she does under her skirt Of off-white and the clownish Socks she likes to wear and wish I would own up to some lunacy Which lodges memory This side of life, while the religious Folks strut with their bodies Safe from God’s hindering blush, All that strengthening rush Of blood without those Depends Her mother wears like a thin Veil between what mortal gulf Lays down its bridge in gasps When the preacher asks if we Believe in heaven and hell And I do not arm myself To say along the way that shelves Fill up with views on prayer. Listen: this speedy age needs a sprayer To do tricks real as the adult lovers We are, plus free-footed fretters Proclaiming Eve is palindromic Substringing this world’s a bone Since so much porn makes the news all day, The story of Stormy and DT who says There is no one hardrock position That might leave old people in a situation They cannot avoid without prayers Unrestrained from life’s soothsayers Mumbling about how life’s too long Anyway to keep dogs off leash in the wrong Field, especially when the play Down becomes exactly what we are trying to say.


Shelby Stephenson was Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 2015-2018.  His recent book of poems:  Slavery and Freedom on Paul's Hill (Press 53, 2019).

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