Amy Knox Brown
2008
 

Penates

for John

In Roman times, the household gods kept watch,
dispensed advice to those who'd paid with sacrifice
of scattered crumbs, daily prayers of thanks. Penates
touched the bread to make it rise,
they kept Vulcan's fires alive inside the hearth
and whispered in the ears of the devout:
Hide your gold. It's going to storm.
Hold your tongue and wait.

Fall afternoon in Kankakee,
your mother pulls the plastic shroud off clothes
she dampened yesterday and left overnight to cure.
In the simple task of ironing, she finds peace:
starch mist floats against her skin,
the iron's inner mechanisms tick
as if it's sending signals. Steam puffs up,
a cloud. The heat of her old Sunbeam
flattens wrinkles crumpled like a relief map's hills.
She's alone, humming to herself,
when her brother-in-law Lloyd stumbles in,
whiskey on his breath, mean eyes crossed from drink.
He waves one fist, a practice punch and nothing new:
she's watched his hand approach her face before,
the next morning he's always sorry,
her eye is almost always swollen shut,
he has a headache, he doesn't know what got a hold of him,
a thing he can't explain, a demon.

Today his knuckles rise distinct
as mountain ranges in the distance, or wrinkles
on a shirt she could flatten with her iron—
and does she hear advice from household gods?
Pick up your iron. She does.
"Get the hell away from me," your mother says to Lloyd. Stepping forward, she's Camilla, the iron
her shield. Lloyd backs against the wall.
"Hey," he says, so scared his eyes uncross to focus
on the iron inches from his face.
She moves it closer.
The shiny metal bottom reflects
Lloyd's open mouth,
the cord swings like an angry cat's tail,
steam rises from the holes and hisses
          Show him
          Show him.

© 2008 Amy Knox Brown

Author Biography



Amy Knox Brown, a fourth-generation Nebraskan, currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her husband John McNally and their pack of animals. She is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Salem College. She holds a BFA from Stephens College, a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, a J.D. from Nebraska's College of Law,
and an MFA from North Carolina State University. Brown is the author of a story collection, Three Versions of the Truth, and her fiction and poetry has appeared in Shenandoah, Missouri Review, Nebraska Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other literary magazines. She is grateful for the encouragement and sound advice from the poetry teachers with whom she's studied: Leslie Adrienne Miller, Ted Kooser, Marcia Southwick, and John Balaban.

Critical Response

"Every now and then, fiction writers will wander into my poetry workshop. Usually, they pick up a few things about diction or rhythm or imagery. Amy Knox Brown walked off with the whole bag of tricks. These poems, like the short stories in her first book, are often funny, sometimes sexy, and always true-to-the-heart."

—John Balaban

"Amy Knox Brown's debut collection of poems, Advice From Household Gods, lifts the lid on those griefs that live too close to see, unless, of course, you have Brown's piercing clarity guiding you in under the skin, into the closets and pockets and significant clutter of lives steeped in the dangers of what it means to be up close. This is a world where a paintbrush lasts longer than a wife, and the remarkable varieties of domestic revenge are pressed into searing ironies. Brown's poems wring the inevitable from the evident with astonishing skill."

—Leslie Adrienne Miller

 
©2009 Longleaf Press at Methodist University | Fayetteville, NC