Pamela Uschuk: “North Carolina Ghost Story”

Pamela Uschuk
is the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Cutthroat. Her new poetry collection Crazy Love (Wings Press, 2009) is enlivened by twin passions for social justice and the beauties of the Colorado landscape. In these poems, nature always provides a restorative place of peace and abundance when the wartime news becomes overwhelming. Beauty is her foundation, but unsentimentally so; the broken human world remains a constant background presence, as if to say that the joys that nourish us are not for our private pleasure alone, but also to give us strength to nourish others.

Read a review of Crazy Love in the literary journal RATTLE: Poetry for the 21st Century. Pam kindly shares a poem from this collection below.

North Carolina Ghost Story

for Elizabeth Dewberry, Teri Hairston and Zelda Lockhart


Sunrise torches the Winston-Salem Projects,
a saxophone of light swelling the cups of red buds
and crenoline skirts of Japanese cherry blossoms
morphing my back yard from orange clay
to Southern belle parfait that a red-tailed hawk
through chasing pigeon breakfast on the wing.
Spooked, the blue jay creaks, a rusty gate
flapping as it navigates dogwood’s white dance.
I walk to campus, hear a rustle,
see how small things of the world survive.
A burrowing chipmunk pokes his nose
from rotten old magnolia leaves,
breathes sky.


I think of my friend, Teri, waking
in the Hood, her dreds emerging
from a thrift store blanket, waking
to pigeons she feeds strut and coo
on the fire escape, waking to
sirens and the smell of grits and coffee
from across the common lawn.

I remember her eyes last night,
chilled even while she laughed,
I don’t want to hear about ghosts. Black girls don’t
like ghosts; don’t tell me about no ghosts, uh, uh.

So Teri waited in the damask parlor
of the elegant old college President’s house
while we three climbed secret stairs
to the attic, where dusky air
compacted like a punctured lung
with each step until our chests squeezed
into the small wheezing cry
of the girl we all heard dragged
across the floor to the terror of her life
and we felt her die
and die and die, her fear bright
and palpable as blood
that streaked her thighs.

None of us could speak but
strained to translate the acid etch
of tears unredeemed, the mystery
inside the marred grain of the oak floor,
but we couldn’t in our strictest scholarly logic
tame the icepick panic
chipping at our own hearts.

Then I whispered what earlier I’d seen —
the vapor trail of the matron
corseted in grim gray muslin,
a living cauldron of grief
boiling through the rooms downstairs,
clouding wallpaper, pink
and oblivious as a bouquet of carnations.

Was she looking for a daughter, hers, her maid’s?
We left the muffled screams of the attic floor,
stained so deep two pine boards had to be
long after the Civil War. We left
with no real clues, just the urine reek
of terror leaking from the walls, the long echo
of screams beating like small fists
or an arrhythmic heart,
a temperature drop
none of us could shake, even when
we descended to the parlor and Teri’s quip
about the questionable ethnicity of Spectral


Accompanied by the sweet flutes of Carolina wrens
I unlock the President’s house
to clean up last night’s party, wondering
about the school’s boast of its underground
and how those who began this school had kept

I scan portraits decorating peppermint walls—
the magnolia blossom faces of gentlemen tobacco
plantation owners who never pulled
a boll from a plant.

Back from the hunt, one gent leads
a dapple grey thoroughbred
to the livery’s whitewashed stalls, his fox hounds
splayed helpless as contorted cutouts
behind the thick black hooves.
The man’s face is pinched, his thin mouth
locked on lust’s hard verb,
eyes ashy, vest cinched tight
under the black waistcoat above white jodpurs
highlighting the bulge between the tops of his
the mahogany blur of a young girl
escaping around the corner
of the elegant white house, up the steps
just out of our sight.