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Joseph Van Gilreath (1922-1990)


Having a live coal in his hand, … he laid it upon my mouth,
and said, Lo, … thine iniquity is taken away. – Isaiah 6:6-7

Back from the war, he married
a church girl. Together, they worked
his father’s farm until the farm

wouldn’t pay, then both took jobs
in the carpet mills that sprang up
like pokeweed across the Georgia foothills.

She called him a tall drink of water.
Long and lithe, he towered over everyone,
though all in those parts came

from the same Scotch-Irish stock—
all Gilreaths, Hoods, McRaes, Littlejohns—
all stooped and copper-haired.

Once he doused a cigarette
on his wife’s tongue as, eyes closed,
she stuck it out at him. Weeks later,

the razor hook of his carpet knife slipped
from its work and sank into his eyeball.
He called it his just deserts.

For years, when he fell asleep in his chair,
his glass eye open and glistening as he snored,
he scared the life out of his grandkids.

Like Christ, he was always watching.
On a hot Tuesday, while his old International
idled beneath him, his heart seized.

They found him in the fresh-plowed dirt,
his good eye staring at the sun,
the glass one half-buried in the earth.

Posted 03/09/12
"Joseph Van Gilreath (1922-1990)" was originally published in Birmingham Poetry Review, vol. 39.
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