Show but Never Tell

by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells
Third Place, March 2007
Judged by Pascale Petit

In the Guller house, terrible things
were done to all the children.
I once lived around the corner, down
a mud road where the youngest
son sometimes walked. His name
was Charlie and I knew something
had to be wrong with his brain.
Nice ponies, he’d tell me, staring
past the edge of his own boyhood.
Ay-uh, them’s real nice. He’d grin
so wide I could count every one
of his tumbledown grey teeth.
He was eleven then, and growing.

In the Guller house, brothers, cousins
and uncles didn’t wait for the girls
to get their periods. None of them
stayed virgins much past five or six.
Except for the cripple, who had stumps
for legs and arms. They used to park
her on the step just to get some sun,
like a plant kept too long in shadows.
Neighbors said she didn’t mind, she was
a vegetable. I had no opinion on that.

In the Guller house, they ate cow-corn
stolen from a field across the highway.
The farmer hooted and slapped
his knee, because they were filching
his cattle-food and he figured it
was funny. I never saw any garden
in their scraped-raw yard. Battered
cars buried the lawn, and junk trucks
made fences. But the social services
and public health station wagons shone
in the dust. So did the small daughters.

In the Guller house, a nurse hesitated
at the threshold with her medicine kit,
while Charlie’s father was breeding one
of his nieces on the kitchen floor. Hold on;
I ain’t done yet!
he grunted, and finished.
The nurse told everybody, but this was
the 1970s. Incest was just a family affair,
except for the babies. Every once in awhile,
they got taken away. Charlie became
a man–with two kids by his sister–
before a Guller finally screamed, loud
enough to disturb the sweet community.
She was thirteen. They tried to shut her up.
By then I’d moved to another county.

In the Guller house, two hundred years
lie black as a dirty stove. The rape-
room is gone: part of a chicken coop.
I suppose the cripple died; Charlie
and his kin should still be in prison,
although probably they’re not.
The laughing farmer’s dead, too. Lost
children drift in the convenient dark,
names without faces, because it’s easier
for the rest of us. Good people still
drive past the ruin, shop and work
and age. Harsh January air cuts
across the South Mountain and sandblasts
an empty driveway–the same wind
that abrades me now. But I’ve never
been hard-blown open, a broken door,
a Guller child.

This is more than a narrative poem telling us a shocking family tale. It's hard to write convincingly about child abuse especially from an outsider's perspective, but the narrator's tone here is just right, a tactful observer who ends by describing him or herself through images, as someone who's "never / been hard-blown open, a broken door." It's this ending that enriches the poem, so that the final draught blows back up through the whole story like the wind in Munch's The Scream. The language is low-key and evenly paced in its steady recounting of the horrors of the Guller house. Simple, stark statements such as "two hundred years / lie black as a dirty stove" and "battered /cars buried the lawn" paint a vivid picture of the place. What shocks is the calm way we're shown how commonplace the sexual abuse was, so much so that visiting nurses would stumble upon it as they went about their work. The narrator is abraded by the sandblasting wind of memory and what has been witnessed but does not over-dramatise the facts. --Pascale Petit