Deconstructing the Red Barn
Iconic red barn,
iconic blue sky,
winter trees full of air,
distant mist rising.
You might imagine
the happy cows lolling
toward home, the time
we’ve all been waiting for.
You might imagine
the cock atop the peak,
preparing his reveille,
his one useful trick.
You might imagine
horses hoofing hay,
waiting for darkness
to finish its nightly falling.
But in your metaphor
of romance and long gone
days, of mythical pasts
we’re supposed to long for,
where are the pre-teen boys,
sneaking out of their mother’s
kitchen with girly magazines,
fistfuls of cigarettes or chew?
Where is the red-cheeked
fumbling of clothes
too young to know any better?
Where are the men sipping
‘shine, putting back the straps
of leather or wood used
to teach a thing or two?
Where are the children
nailed beneath floorboards,
the mothers hung
among the rafters?
Barns fall to ramshackle,
and then are resurrected
beneath a dream, a photo,
a coat of red paint.
He got paid in eggs, corn, homemade pies
more often than cash, a rare commodity
in any amount among the farmers
around Lake Greenwood, too poor to afford
a town doctor for fixing legs, lancing
infections, stitching sides gored by horn
or spur. He rarely said anything
thought his place was a dangerous one
secured only by what he could do
and how many owed him. They’d
before a cloud of dust, most telling
children to stay put, then returning
to the truck themselves to wait.
Those who let their kids play in the woods,
unafraid of black skin touching white,
he trusted just a bit more, laughed
at their jokes, extended a hand,
looked them in the eye. Dirt track
running down to woods and water’s
Old Man Garrison got plenty mad
when they paved it, put up that sign,
swore he’d never understand how
of a slave, his own daddy’s slave
at that, could have a road named after
Most had always called it Ligon Road,
as long as there had been a road,
after the black man at the water end
on land his daddy had gotten a piece
at a time in trade for a lifetime
of fixing Garrison mules, a man
whose skills learned from father and grandfather
brought more traffic that way than two
and two hundred years of white-owned houses.
First they blossom, large and clear,
pink as tongues, as hibiscus
in the morning, but quick they close,
night following so close
on daybreak’s first step.
Your fingers cannot pry them open,
will only break them off,
will only make them shudder
beneath the callous touch of making.
“You cannot stay here,” the
“All that we are will burn
your eyes to see, will turn
your mind to stone, will cause
your mouth to close on its own inadequacy.”
You see, but only a moment, a cloud
like a rose growing, one layer
after another unfolding until the pieces
fall off, petals in a mutilated garden.
You see the trumpet-tongues of lilies
straining to speak, each voice
a cat’s cry in darkness. You
bristled stalks of flowers dappled
in shadow, unsheathing yellow thorns.
You pause before them
and already you feel your own skin
laced with traces of history,
dark scars of the past, bright welts
of the future. Already you feel
the claws of ever-smaller animals
scratching at your neck, at the base
of your skull, the corners of your eyelids.
All this runs like water through your
What you try to keep sours, rises,
disgorges itself across your shirt,
lingers unseemly in your beard.
“It is not yours to keep.
It is not yours to claim
as some simple light
shining beneath the eyelids.”
“Don’t you understand,
you cannot stay here.
You’ll be like balsam, like clay,
like paper dolls before a fire.”
Author of five collections
of poetry, Scott Owens is editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, author of “Musings” (a weekly column on poetry),
founder of Poetry Hickory, Vice President of the Poetry Council of North Carolina, and a reviewer of contemporary
poetry. His work has received awards from the Pushcart Prize Anthology, the Academy of American Poets, the NC Writers’
Network, the North Carolina Poetry Society, and the Poetry Society of South Carolina. Born in Greenwood, South
Carolina, he has lived in North Carolina for the past 25 years and currently teaches at Catawba Valley Community College.