Jul/Aug 2011 Poetry

Two Poems

by Michele Harris

Photo by Joy Harjo

Photo by Joy Harjo

The Johnstown Flood

For Ethel Fitzharris, Great Grandmother

You were two when the South Fork Dam
collapsed, when the flood thrust loose
every rail car and thread
of barbed wire from Cambria Iron Works.
Smoke leaked from burst open boilers. Oaks
and pines unfastened their roots, climbed
the current until they caught
against a house, and a house, and a church.

Before the flood reached Iron Street
your mother had been pushing
a needle through the side
of a pleated cotton dress.
By the time she snapped you
in her arms, water climbed up
her elbows. Outside, timber
knocked and knocked. Clambering
to the attic, toeing bare boards, she pressed
you to her belly. The straining yowl
of house walls meant no going
back downstairs, where your grandfather
slept tossing about
images of Meath in his head: thistle
that infiltrated the tubers, that broke
through mud and leaf to creep
between the tilled rills of the soil, just
opening after a good rain.


The Mushroom Miner

For my mother

Under the thin, collapsing-
tunnel light, the mushrooms gleam
like knuckles. Plucked, neck-lopped, and packed

in canvas sacks, the white bulbs
soft in her hands. She loosens
every thread of root

presses the blade
halfway down the gray-white throat
and cuts and pulls and knifes

and bags and cuts and pulls and pulls.
Nothing smells
like this: earth under earth, her gloved wrists

skimming potash, shit, gypsum—
soil purring
above electric heaters.

Once she finishes cleaning each rick
of mushrooms, sewing spores
back into the loam, she climbs

between the steel shunts of the lift,
unholsters her battery, lets her hard-hat
go dark.


Previous Piece Next Piece