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Free Verse: Christopher Todd Anderson

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2011 - For obvious reasons, we wanted to include this poem in our upcoming "Circles of Hell" issue of River Styx. Of course, it's also perfect for Mother's Day.

Randolph County, Indiana

Stare into the sun and you will see
angels, my mother told me, holding
my face toward the sky. Sometimes
at dinner she stirred ash into our stew,
giving us, she explained, a foretaste
of damnation. That woman will bake
bread in hell, the locals whispered.

Once, in our yard, she set a man on fire,
a drifter who crossed her. A splash
of gasoline from a Mason jar, a tossed
match. I was there, a boy watching a man's
limbs aflame, his face writhing. Neighbors
smothered the fire, salved his wounds,
and bought him a train ticket to Chicago.

The local newspaper ran a five-line story
calling it an accident. Mother stayed up
all that night singing hymns, made my sister
and me sing along. We read the tale of Pentecost:
fire crowning the heads of God's chosen ones.
For weeks I relived the chemical odor of burning
hair, the sizzle of skin curdled by flames.

My mother was dead six months before I heard
she was gone. She spent her last years alone,
her mind a nest of serpents. It's cold here,
eight hundred miles from Indiana, the sun
too feeble to stir the dead. Nothing will coax
heat from these memories. The dead can't see
the sky; their sewn mouths cannot sing.

Christopher Todd Anderson is assistant professor of English at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kans., where he teaches American literature and creative writing. His article on garbage and landfills in contemporary American poetry recently appeared in "ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment."

To learn more about River Styx, click here. Richard Newman, River Styx editor for 15 years, is the author of two full-length poetry collections, "Borrowed Towns" and "Domestic Fugues." He also co-directs the River Styx at Duff's reading series.