Poetry: Purple by Laura Argiri
We were so excited to see this strong narrative poem in the slush—a story of a young girl with a rock in her hand and purple in her blood. Laura Argiri pulls out character and action and scene from poetic language with ease and finesse and now we understand even better why young adult novels-in-verse are so often bestsellers. Try not to want to be Tansy.
Tansy Smith’s been whipped this week
for running away from the Baptist church
and singing hymns with the Catholics.
They have colored windows and prettier clothes.
Now she sweats, and her whipped legs sting.
Tansy Smith is lying in wait.
She read about lying in wait in a story,
an English one about a highwayman.
She’s doing it in the bushes by the dye ditch,
knees to the gravel, in the stifling shade.
The dye ditch runs in church-glass colors.
Today it gushes purple.
The mill is making purple cloth.
Maybe it’s church cloth, for Lent, or saints.
She lies in wait for Johnny Dawkins.
Johnny Dawkins killed her cat.
He made a pulp of that poor animal
and left her where Tansy would find her.
Tansy Smith found a perfect rock, a rock that fits her hand.
She has the smooth side to her palm.
The sharp side’s out for Johnny Dawkins.
Johnny Dawkins walks this way home.
She means to make it sudden, and she does.
She leaps on his back. In the dye ditch he goes!
Her tight thin legs hold him down.
She leans on his neck with her left hand.
She beats on his head with her rock:
one, two, three, four!
And more, and others.
The dye makes her whipped legs sting so much,
that might be the reason she lets him up.
She might not have stopped otherwise.
She lets him crawl up in the dirt,
bleeding from both ears and his nose.
She watches him gulp and heave and bawl.
The pair of them are baptized purple.
Both will get whipped for ruining their clothes,
and maybe whipped double for fighting.
Purple sears their eyes and lungs and nostrils.
Everywhere she’s got the slightest scratch
She glows molten with purple pain.
She takes a step, and he cringes back.
She says, “You know damn well what that’s for!”
She tells herself, it’ll be worth it
even when Mam gets hold of me.
She holds her rock in her good right hand
in case he gets ideas.
She watches him limp off home.
She thinks she’ll keep that rock.
That boy’s going to be purple where it got him
even when that dye washes off.
She’s purple too, even her pretty pale hair,
that white-blonde Mam’s so proud of.
Her legs feel so hot that she thinks of that girl
some king set on fire for wearing britches, seeing angels,
and leading an army like a man.
Laura Argiri is a bicultural Southerner/New Englander, born in North Carolina and educated in Massachusetts and England. She wrote The God in Flight, Random House 1995, published in paperback by Viking Penguin, May 1996, and in its second edition by Lethe in 2016. She is also an editor, the unseen angel of correct spelling and usage in 90 books by the most recent count. Lethe Press will publish her short story collection, Guilty Parties: Leighlah and Others in 2020.