national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011
Honorable Mention in Poetry

North Country Lessons

Conner McDonough  • 
University of Tampa

The North Country wind blows through the yard

as you lace up my gloves, then your gloves.

Time to teach you how to be a man. Your breath

stinks of whiskey, Chesterfields. You got soft

after Ma died. Need to learn that everyone takes a beating

but it takes a man to give a beating back.

 

You swing hard against my jaw, knocking me on my back.

You pick me up by the wrist from the yard,

brushing grass from my hair. I whimper like a beaten

cur. Don’t cry. You wipe tears away with your glove,

color of oxblood, leather cracked and soft

against my cheek. Take a knee, take a breath,

 

get back up and keep swinging. You say, between breaths,

that I shouldn’t get used to people helping me back

up. Not the way the world works. The ground is soft

beneath my feet, damp from the melting snow in the yard.

It squishes, the same sound my nose makes as your glove

connects with it. When the world gives you a beating

 

does it hurt this much, Papa? You’ve been beaten

around your whole life. It’s worse. The next blow’s a breath

of violence, exhaled from your lungs, through your gloves

into my chest. But I’m swinging now, swinging back

at you. Smiling, you dance backwards across the yard

letting my fragile blows, a child’s blows, fall softly

 

upon your chest, your stomach. That’s it, you say in soft

tones. Encourage me, Papa. Teach me to beat life, to beat

the world. We leave muddy footprints across the yard

as we box; you box for Ma’s last desperate breaths,

I box for the hope that one day she’ll come back.

Seems we box forever, until the blood stops, until the gloves

 

fill with sweat, until we can’t punch anymore. Your hand, gloved

in blood that sweats from split knuckles, dangles softly

against your leg. Let me hold your hand, Papa, let me rub your back

and tell you that it’ll be okay. Papa, I’m tired of the beatings.

You say you are too. The wind from the north blows again, a breath

that chills both of us as we sway like dying trees in the yard.

 

Our hearts beat together. Breathlessly anchored by grief,

we throw our gloves over our shoulders, against our backs.

The wind blows strong, howling, then blows softly, whispering.