Selected by Debie Thomas

Andrew Hudgins

The Hereafter

Some people as they die grow fierce, afraid.
They see a bright light, offer frantic prayers,
and try to climb them, like Jacob’s ladder, up
to heaven. Others, never wavering,
inhabit heaven years before they die,
so certain of their grace they can describe,
down to the gingerbread around the eaves,
the cottage God has saved for them. For hours
they’ll talk of how the willow will not weep,
the flowering Judas not betray. They’ll talk
of how they’ll finally learn to play the flute
and speak good French.
Still others know they’ll rot
and their flesh turn to earth, which will become
live oaks, spreading their leaves in August light.
The green cathedral glow that shines through them
will light grandchildren playing hide-and-seek
inside the grove. My next-door neighbor says
he’s glad the buzzards will at last give wings
to those of us who’ve envied swifts as they
swoop, twist, and race through tight mosquito runs.

And some — my brother’s one — anticipate
the grave as if it were a chair pulled up
before a fire on winter nights. His ghost,
he thinks, will slouch into the velvet cushion,
a bourbon and branch water in its hand.
I’ve even met a man who says the soul
will come back in another skin — the way
a renter moves from house to house. Myself,
I’d like to come back as my father’s hound.
Or something fast: a deer, a rust-red fox.

For so long I have thought of us as nails
God drives into the oak floor of this world,
it’s hard to comprehend the hammer turned
to claw me out. I’m joking, mostly. I love
the possibilities — not one or two
but all of them. So if I had to choose,
pick only one and let the others go,
my death would be less strange, less rich, less like
a dizzying swig of fine rotgut. I roll
the busthead, slow, across my tongue and taste
the copper coils, the mockingbird that died
from fumes and plunged, wings spread, into the mash.
And underneath it all, just barely there,
I find the scorched-nut hint of corn that grew
in fields I walked, flourished beneath a sun
that warmed my skin, swaying in a changing wind
that tousled, stung, caressed, and toppled me.

Andrew Hudgins is the author of numerous collections of poetry and essays, many of which have received high critical praise, such as The Never-Ending: New Poems (1991), which was a finalist for the National Book Awards; After the Lost War: A Narrative (1988), which received the Poets’ Prize; and Saints and Strangers (1985), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Hudgins is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and was the Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at The Ohio State University. He previously taught at Baylor University and the University of Cincinnati. Hudgins now lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the writer Erin McGraw.

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