ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Poems by Shelby Stephenson


I heard the words sermonized a lot
in pulpits by the preachers
on my father's side,

watched him lay his sole self
in the dwellings of Sunday
mornings at Rehobeth Church

and sit in kitchens run by women
sinking in the walking way
deep as far back as voice

calls one to preach the gospel.
If I could get that history
back to the blather of cleric

and see the parchments of sages
in places where information waters
down into a hole in the ground,

the past might plant standards
no myth could copy
and the one who first said

Let's go – might never be
ousted from loneliness
of strolling along, hopefully,

singing a song, for what beginning ends
or comes to − to open my path to love
and to a kingdom of some hope and solidity,

a city of squares where rapture rules
and we – the two of us now – sit
down by the river, old acquaintances, renew.



I never coddled to them.
If they were persistent they were nagging
and jiggery as the needle-point holly
they beaded up for drops.
And if I never forgot the sun among them
they could not get too deep in my soul.

In the rush of early March
a bunch of black ice kept gathering in them
like the old beard of witches inside trunk-stumps.
In the boundaries of the maps
the meteorologists pointed and grinned.
They sighed if the forecast was dark
or too many bands had made the country bright
or too little color made the image grey.

On the crowns of grey sparrows
they tapped out-of-rhythm pointers.
Hype seeded in the holding back
opinions marginally everlasting.

Always and again, missing warmth, I dreamed
miles and miles and saw in my tracks
the curving handwriting of each wall of clouds
and felt them perfect themselves as felt pens
draining into the veins of my heart.

Let them take this considerable
concern into their unsuspecting art.



Conjurations of a blimp
covered with letters, uninviting
as an alligator's hide.

Awkwardly I can't help it.
Confession:  the hides
shape me.  My skin crawls

and I draw (not lift) mine eyes to nouns.
Fox (deceased), raccoon (limp),
snake (scales), squirrel (bristles).

I live instinct.
I hear bees humming.
Their legs fur with soul

incredible in hours of ranging
promenade; my heart
skips a beat to see the possum hiss.

Shelby Stephenson served as Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 2015-2018. Recent books:  Elegies for Small Game (Press 53), winner of Roanoke-Chowan Award; Family Matters:  Homage to July, the Slave Girl (Bellday Books), the Bellday Prize; Paul's Hill:  Homage to Whitman (Sir Walter Press); Our World (Press 53); Nin's Poem (St. Andrews University Press); Slavery and Freedom on Paul's Hill (Press 53).  Recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Achievement Award, English Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, serving as editor of Pembroke Magazine from 1979 until his retirement in 2010.  He lives at the homeplace on Paul's Hill, where he was born, near McGee's Crossroads, about ten miles northwest of Benson.

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