“Heat” by Michael Chitwood

A Coke bottle
with a sprinkle head
sat at one end of the board.
She’d swap iron for bottle,
splash the cloth,
then go at it with the iron.
The crooked was made straight,
the wrinkled smooth
and she’d lecture from that altar
where rumpled sheets went crisp.
“If Old Scratch gets his claws
in your thigh or neck,
you burn a thousand years
and that is the first day.”
Our clothes got rigid,
seam matched seam.
Our bodies would ruin her work.

from Gospel  Road Going (Tryon Publishing, 2002)
published by permission of the author

At first “Heat” may seem a simple poem about ironing and the importance of being neat, but the religious references, from crooked being “made straight,” an altar, the Devil and fiery eternity make it clear he has bigger game in mind.  Through labor, moisture and heat, flaws are corrected, but the correction can’t withstand use by our corporeal, moral bodies.  Life has that way of refusing the neat, but we’re invited to imagine that “she” (mother figure or helper) will work against Old Scratch and the crooked again and again.  The poem depends upon that parallel between “our clothes” and “our bodies,” the bare, forked, naked (and sinning) selves and the vestments which have been baptized and disciplined by fire.  One of the poem’s beauties is the naturalness with which Chitwood makes the comparisons, the vernacular deployed authentically and not over-done.  “She” has earned the right to lecture, and we owe it to ourselves to listen, even heed (close enough to heat, not so far from heart).  “. . . and that is the first day.”  Another of the poem’s virtues is thrift – enough said.

Michael Chitwood was born in Rocky Mount, Virginia and took degrees at Emory and Henry and UVA.  His collections of poetry include Salt Works, Whet, Poor Mouth Jubilee, Whence, Spill and The Weave Room.  He has also published several collections of essays and works as a freelance writer, as well as a lecturer at UNC.

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.