Roots

by Ken Ashworth
The Writer's Block
Third Place, July 2008
Judged by Tony Barnstone


When I was a kid, I never knew why
one leg breaks the whole horse,
or how a circle the size of my thumb
pulls the whole ocean after it,
but I learned all there was to know
about girls behind Brindle’s barn
when Alice Paxton broke my tooth out
with her lunch box for trying to slide
my hand up her whithers and cop a feel.

I stood there in a moment of half disbelief
slivering my tongue in and out of the slot
that was now not-tooth, the taste of an old penny
strong at the back of my throat,

watched as she worried the hem of her dress,
smoothing and re-smoothing that spot my hand got to.
Her eyes began to well and she burst
out in tears, terrified I might have swallowed it.

We searched for it until dusk, scuffled clumps of
hay with our feet exposing the soft underbelly
of loam that was both not-earth and not-manure,

until there was just enough light left to make
our way down the fence line, fingers tipped together
across the top wire, both of us knowing that soon,
she would turn and disappear within a twist
of green corn rows and I would watch until
she became smaller than the stalks, then go on.

That night I dreamed the tooth took root
and grew into a tree like the one in the dream
of Nebuchadnezzar which covered the whole earth,
and I wove my way among its branches
to the one which stopped just at her window,
slipped inside sucking a wet handkerchief.

Smell of dung still fresh in my shoe treads
I slid in beside her holding my breath,
sifting her hair with my fingers, trying hard
not to wake her and to conceal the bulge in the maw of my jeans;
the medicine bottle where I kept the tooth.


This is a good narrative poem, lovely in its bones. It has wonderful sounds ("dusk, scuffled clumps," "tooth took root"), cool verbs ("slivering my tongue in and out of the slot / that was now not-tooth"), and the poet knows that the good narrative poem moves, that the story turns rhetorically, lyrically, narratively, or better yet, all three, as this one does. The move into tooth-root-tree dream is what made me fall in love with the poem, along with the perfectly right strangeness of certain lines. I don't know why when the protagonist climbs the world-tree into her window he's sucking a wet handkerchief, but instinctively I love that he's doing so. --Tony Barnstone

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