National Poetry Month – Joseph Bathanti

I first heard Joseph read and discuss poetry almost twenty years ago at my first Central Piedmont Community College Literary Festival, organized by Irene Blair Honeycutt. I immediately felt a connection to his poetry because he writes about growing up Catholic in a working-class family in a steel town. I did too. I kept my ear out for him. Along with garnering numerous awards, he was named NC Poet Laureate for 2012-2014.

In 2013 I had the great fortune of studying with him at Table Rock Writers Workshop and it was there, along with the others in the class, I was able to call him mentor and friend.

In Joseph’s poems you feel the grit and smoke from the steel mills, laugh at his escapades as a young man and his love of baseball; you taste the cheeses, salamis and sauces that were always present in his childhood home; see the nuns in their black habits, ever ready with correction. Joseph also writes of the NC Correctional System where he worked as a Vista worker. Throughout his poetry and essays there is the thread named Joan, and you smile at the love Joseph has for his wife.

Joseph’s current work, however, is something very special. He’s the Charles George VA Medical Center’s Writer-in-Residence, helping Veterans and their families write their stories. Some of these stories have already been collected in a book and are sometimes presented in public as readings or as plays.

From Anson County, published by Press 53, posted with the poet’s permission.

Copperhead

The dogs have seen a ghost.

The dance around the demon,

barking with dread at the sexless coils,

the switchblade tongue.

The book insists it’s death’s look alike.

I’m tempted to let it go about its business,

but it does not fathom mercy.

Snug on its hump of clay and bloodberries,

it begins unraveling.

The puckered skull levitates.

No moon nor fury for this work,

I’ve merely an inkling of kill or be killed —

a sorry yet orthodox theology.

Like an exorcist, I lift the spade

and pray to the God of murder,

then strike.

All night I dream

of the death-wiggle,

the ghastly heap flip-flopping,

the severed head

inching toward my boot.

 

From Concertina, published by Mercer University Press, posted with the poet’s permission.

Shank

The first shank

I was shown doubled

 

as a toothbrush,

the fiberglass

 

handle sharpened

to a pointed hush

 

by scraping it

on the concrete

 

cellblock floor.

Stick it in,

 

then pull it out

and scrub your teeth,

 

the owner confided.

Hygiene comes first in here.

 

From Full Metal, published by Press 53, posted with the poet’s permission.

The Strike Baby (for my Mother & Father & Marie)

Eleven dollars a week

unemployment

 

and I wasn’t getting pregnant.

When I did

 

your father went on strike.

We were renting from

 

Nick and Ida Santilli.

They said forget about the rent

 

until the baby comes.

You were due.

 

Your father was on strike.

Then winter came;

 

and, my God, the snow.

The 1950 snow:

 

everybody called it

the big snow.

 

I baked bread.

We bought produce from the huckster.

 

Daddy painted Abe

and Lena Vento’s house.

 

They bought us a crib,

so we asked them

 

to be Godparents.

The days Daddy got paid

 

he brought home

a twenty sent pie.

 

It cost a hundred and ten

dollars to have a baby:

 

nine months care

and delivery,

 

calcium and vitamin pills.

Two days after

 

you were born,

the strike ended.

 

My Sister’s Childhood

There exists no accounts

of trouble in my sister’s childhood.

She was a virtuous, myopic girl;

gifted, mysterious, one to hesitate

with the secret word in the wee of night

when I tapped the wall that separated

our bedrooms and asked, “What is naked?”

And, though not quite happy about it,

she would know. When the nuns dragged me

to her classroom and beat me in front of her,

they forced her to stand

amidst her seated class. Akimbo

cross a chair I could make out

the pale blue veins

of the hand she placed on her desktop

to  steady herself as she watched.

Even as the black board fell

I thought only of her rescue.

When I finally uncrooked myself,

I was required to turn and say,

“Thank you, Sister,” to the gleaming

face that was not my sister’s.

Then I looked at Marie,

her small hands petaled across her face —

nowhere else for my eyes.

 

Joseph’s answers to my questions ~

I wrote my first poem, I think, when I was in high school and it was prompted by falling in love and wanting to impress the girl.

I’d love to have tea with Sylvia Plath.


 

 

 

 

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