Matthew Gilbert’s four poems explore the struggles of growing into and shaping identity. By looking at the significance of culture, poverty, and community, Gilbert stains narrative with impoverished truths that shape the lives of so many around the world…
by: Matthew Gilbert
Called to breakfast while my father took his
shotgun from the bedroom wall, I understood why
hospital beds frightened me. It was the sterility of a white
cotton sheet wrapped around the tabby kitten
our neighbor had hit and left in our care.
I recognized its waning purr as I ran my index finger
around its head to calm the nerves before my father carried the box outside.
My mother pulled closed the dining shutters the way doctors closed
the curtain around my grandfather’s bed
last time I saw him, and I remembered the feel of
prickling gray from his beard when I pulled
myself into his chest. He mustered the strength to rub
my head with his fingers. I didn’t cry. It was the same
jolt of emptiness I felt when the gunfire fell quiet.
My father asked for breakfast and eggs. He tucked
the stained cloth into the laundry hamper,
began to read his newspaper. I hadn’t eaten a bite
when my mother sat my scarf and gloves
by my backpack on the floor, then opened the shutters.
A heap of soil flared over whiteness, blemish
by train tracks in the pall of winter’s chill.
The Cost of Hunger
Before the last frost of Autumn
we plant beets in hard clay;
black-soiled spades digging into the iced earth, fuschia tangles
sprouting to soak their greenness in sunlight.
We are told that bitterness begets
the sweetest flavors,
topsoil glassed over while the petunias die of hypothermia.
How beautiful they are: heads buried, scarlet stems
grasped by firm palms
until they are pulled from shelter
so their hardness can be softened with vinegar.
You cannot love a raw ruby whose richness
bears the heaviness of drowned soil: Waterlocked
and burgeoning upward, fists crying for rain
to wash away the grit
of dirty hands.
From wicker baskets comes
this downpour of lazy days
picking ripe apples from a roadside
stall at the end of a vacant trail
I walk to clear the mind.
From dusty shirtfuls and tiny fingers,
from granny’s trees on Saturday mornings,
comes that tart payment of pennies
for hours of too young labor,
and the stall boy smiles.
And the stall boy whispers
from behind the table, These
and on his tip toes he pushes
two apples, red like chili fire,
to the front of the table:
These oblate scarlet forms,
beads of rolling
down with the patter of rain
on the gravel. How sweet it must be
to gorge oneself on a sugary deal,
Surely, the boy had a talent,
probably more than he’d learn to hone.
His choices burnt in the sunlight
where clouds began to break,
and his mother called for help carrying a box.
A dollar thirty she says upon return
when I hold up those juicy fruits,
and the boy holds out his hand,
tiny but stout, cracked like a withered bough.
I hand him two dollars and walk on back.
What is it that makes us want?
What makes us want to want?
Is it the gloss of color on the skin,
in that moment, in the rain at the end
of the trail?
There are days we learn we already know
that bite of the ruby apple,
glazed with rainwater, a silent
understanding in giving more than asked
shared in between strangers.
Someday I’ll Wear My Skin
Go for the leather jacket,
not the fitted bomber,
else you’ll explode,
the shrapnel of
will be betray you to the world
and your co-workers;
your neighbors will see
what’s hiding inside.
Instead, learn to choose the burnt
mud boots. When you step in shit,
no one will see the stains
as long as you smile.
Neutral colors do well
Maybe one day
you’ll choose to wear something
a little lighter.
You always wanted to fly,
but wings cannot conceal
the blackberry whelps
from falling too hard,
the scars from kissing
because blacktop is hard
like we should be. Maybe
one day, you’ll hang
out on the line,
make yourself proud
for wearing yourself
on the outside.
Matthew Gilbert is a co-founder and poetry editor of Black Moon Magazine. He reads for Orison Books and serves as a poetry editor at Great Lakes Review. He also edits the newsletter for Poetry Society of Tennessee — Northeast Chapter. He enjoys writing that crackles and burns with emotion, works that push the boundaries between writing and lived experience — works where language and form celebrate the reader. His works have previously appeared in Mockingbird, Delta Poetry Review, The Castle, Eunoia Review, Jimsonweed, and Mildred Haun Review, among others, and his work is forthcoming in The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol IX: Virginia.