Two Poems by William Woolfitt

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

The Refineries: St. Charles Parish and St. James Parish    

i. Science Fair, 2002

The diorama’s tiny clay people
cluster before milk carton houses,
take pills from seed beads     
standing in for medicine bottles

& draw breath from oxygen tanks
made from ballpoint pens, the barrels
unscrewed. Past the cheesecloth fence,

the oil company’s towers & vats
& cracking units — foil-wrapped
cardboard tubes — give off
gobs of smoke,

aspirin cotton & pinched pillow
batting. Two clay people drape
a swatch of cling wrap to protect

their miniature rose bushes.
Above the flare stacks,
tongues of green paper
lick the damaged air.

ii. Wade in the Water, 1847

The many, the hushed, the scorned — they steal off,
wing through, rabbit past the quarters, cane fields,
poor white trash who would drag them to the master.
At the brickyard meeting, Mingo preaches fire that tries
pure gold. They shout, part the rushes & duckweeds,
dip into the pond that feeds the sugar-house boilers.
Sins dissolve. Mud, leaf-sap, & sweat-salt wash away
in the troubled waters. The stained, the pressed down,
the shaken get new souls. With passes for the angel train,
they’re running over, moaning, coming through.

iii. Sugar-house, 1847

Keep the hogsheads filled,
reservoirs, iron kettles, flambeau
& batterie.
See that no hand

idles; whip if you must, even
your blood, be whipped
if you defy. Tell the children

to bring more carts of wood,
drift & slash. The grinding
and boiling does not cease

day or night. Pipe the juice
through filters of bone-ash
that strip color, bleach the sticky

amber to grains of snow.

iv. Fugitive Emissions

are everywhere in Diamond,
formerly Belltown, formerly Myrtleland
& Roseland plantations, the Trepagnier
land grants, where the heads of slaves
were put on stakes —

are seeping from faulty valves, flanges,
pump seals —

are collected in a gallon snap bag
that’s swaddled with towels
in the teacher’s suitcase —

what concerned citizens ask for is a just
and fair relocation

are breaching bad lungs, watery eyes,
skin that’s discolored or enflamed —

are stunting gardens where tomatoes
drop off premature, turn to prunes —

are flowing around the wet towels
that people hold over their heads
as they pack their bags
at bedtime, ready to flee —  

v. Under the Sugar Kettle, 2002

On the levee, boys cup fireflies, fill
their hands, then a jelly jar that flashes,
throbs with strange gold, refracts
the thousand sodium lights of the chemical

plants half a mile away. In St. Michael’s,
the priest blows out the votives,
dusts the niches made from clamshells
and burnt sugar pulp. Watching grasses

and saplings sway in the vacant field
at town’s edge, the grandmother mutters
spirit-talk against the future plastic
factory that tycoons plan to raise: in the name

of Jesus I promise you will not build here.
A plaster girl, patron saint of fever sores
and rashes, lifts her eyes to caramelized iron—
the dome’s grotto, her kettled sky.

In Soda Water, Crystallized

The lake folded over her grandfather
and hid him the way her hands lace

around a gull-chick. The lake gives her his shape,
the husk of him, man of salt and muck,

when she gazes from the shore. He refused Fort Tejon,
he fled, he was swimming when the cavalry

hailed bullets into the lake. Grieving, she sings and shakes
the deer ear rattle, unfolds his handkerchief

she’s kept for years, and burns it in the sand.
She does not fear the restless waters, odors of blood

and burnt metal, quagmires and brittle reeds. His body
lies in the bottom, preserved in soda, crystallized,

she sees tiny fish riffle through the hollows
of his eyes, water-babies roost in his hands.  

Photo of William Woolfitt

Photo of William Woolfitt

William Woolfitt is the author of the poetry collections Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016). His poems and stories have appeared in Blackbird, Image, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Epoch and other journals. He is the recipient of the Howard Nemerov Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Denny C. Plattner Award from Appalachian Heritage.