Playing Scrabble with Steve and Crystal: poetry

Maya Jewell Zeller

Winner of the Dogwood 2012 Poetry Award


The theme is autumn, and we try to justify

every play with a story, careful

to make these letters mean things

they didn’t mean in the darkness

of their silver bag, the straight coffin of tray,

our shaking fingers shuffling them onto a board,

weaving each new word to the beginning

of school again, pep rallies, lockers,

to football, the punts and throbs—

not things boys are but things boys do,

make girls do.I was not interested

in football, but the idea of football, of a riot

of muscle and light, the kind of playing

we girls did when, from horseback, my best friends

and I slung mud. The goal

was not to win but to be the one

so covered in mud she looked like

the swamp woman, a monster

come down from the north, somewhere

more wild even than here. We didn’t know

if that was possible, but we wanted

to know. The sloppy dark

muck lay around the old tub we used as a trough

where the horses and mules had their meals,

stood to switch flies from their flanks while

their hooves made the hard earth soft.

We’d lean down and scoop, throw

and ride, spitting, doing the gross things

we’d been warned against

since we were six and our mothers threatened

we might become tomboys.It’s too late

in this story—these girls growl, yip like wild kazoos

a vendor might sell for ten cents a-piece

at the fair where nice girls take their horses

with manes combed and plaited

in ribbon, where girls comment

on dahlias, touch doilies, and blush

in their pink dresses. These girls are not at

that fair. They gallop the trail that runs

past the flipped truck with its shattered

windows, axle rusted raw as my mouth

when my mother slapped me for saying things,

past the logs some flood left in this vast

field, the beams of pine robbed

from another field further upstream. The whole

place a maze of stream rock and clay

and grass and new hay. We didn’t know football

or the things it could lead to. This

was the jet-white game of mud. We pulsed

with girlhood, and from a brown

crusted body my eyes shone out like a cat’s

from under the barn, straight lye to scrub

the sky down with. I had mud

in my hands, and I was going to throw.

They each had mud, and they

would not quit until they could no longer see my skin,

there would be no going home, no searing race across

the floodplain, no nap unfolding its dreams.

If we could shriek and play this game,

we could do anything.

If we could be slick, slick, smothered

in these shells, we could

emerge something else entirely. Even now

it makes me think of fish frozen in ice,

motionless for winter. Even now

I want to crack each girl’s sheen

and watch the animal underneath

groan back toward the light.


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