Three Poems by Barbara Presnell

Packing for My Son’s Wedding

He was 2 when he vanished between clothing racks
at the mall boutique and for 15 or so panicked minutes

I couldn’t imagine going on without him.
At 21, he boxed up his boyhood room, repainted his walls,

headed off to his first job, and said, From now on, I’ll be a guest.
But season after season, he came home

for t-shirts, an unmade bed, and a dog curled on the floor.
Now he’s replaced I with we, mine with ours,

you with her. What do I put in this suitcase
but every day backwards and every day to come.

He will keep a room for me, he says,
and when I am old I will stay with him,

forever as certain
as underwear, toothpaste, dress, hat, shoes.


A Sparrow Hangs by His Neck at My Feeder

He is not dead when I find him,
his marble-sized head caught
in a feast of seeds, neck twisted
sideways in the hole, his fat,
full belly trying desperately to fly
out of this mess and back to the flock
that has been idling at my kitchen window
all morning. I am as panicked
as he is when I finger his body,
talking in my soft mother voice, Be still.
Be still. Trust me. I lift the feeder
from the shepherd’s crook and begin
to unbuild it. Over and over he opens
his wings, flapping, legs kicking, then settles.

I can’t let myself think what I fear:
that when he is loose, his round head
will flop against his chest like wet clay.
I lift off the cap, undo the base,
seed spilling everywhere across
the brick step and onto the pine needles
where I am kneeling, the bead
of his eyes shooting in every direction.
His mouth opens and closes like a baby’s.
I beat the hollow feeder hard
against the ground. On the third hit,
he tumbles free. Then lifting, whole into sky,
his zig-zag straightens and blends
into the ordinary multitude of the living.


The Death of Col. McCollum

Two yards from where the body lay,
Bill found his wallet, splayed open
to the photo of a woman standing in snow,
baby in her left arm, her right hand clutching

the fist of a small girl pressed into her waist.
On the back in slanted script,
Waiting here for you. Love forever.
His helmet had rolled off and was lying

in leaves not far from the river bank
they’d crossed earlier that day
as mortar fire shattered around them.
Bill pulled the dog tags, cursing.

What any of them would do now,
he couldn’t say. He cried, blamed himself,
said he should’ve gone too, could’ve at least
hunted down the son of a bitch that got him.

Now he fires at everything that moves–
a rustle in the brush, a rabbit, a bird,
wind stirring. Hours ticking off
till everything he knows is gone.

Barbara Presnell
Barbara Presnell

Barbara Presnell’s poetry collection, Piece Work, which documents the textile industry in North Carolina through the voices of workers, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize and was published by CSU in 2007. Her newest collection, titled Blue Star, to be published by Press 53 in 2016, traces her family’s involvement in war from the Civil War to the present through military records, census reports, letters, journals, and photographs. Other poems from the collection have appeared in storySouth; War, Literature, and the Arts; Appalachian Journal; Chariton Review; and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. As a documentary poet and essayist, she writes often of social and cultural change, particularly in the South.

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