Five poems by Jo McDougall 

Excerpted from her new collection, 'The Undiscovered Room.'

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Jo McDougall, born and raised near DeWitt and now based in Little Rock, has published six acclaimed poetry collections, many of them navigating the milieus of the Arkansas Delta. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Hudson Review and the Georgia Review, and she's the recipient of a Porter Prize. Her work has been adapted into short films, stage presentations and song cycles, and she is also the author of a memoir, "Daddy's Money: A Memoir of Farm and Family." Her new collection, "The Undiscovered Room," ranges from meditations on loss (personal and regional) to prismatic meditations on artists like Flannery O'Connor and Lucinda Williams.


You there — stand back.

If the wind's right, I probably smell,

even after all these years.

Don't give me that simpering look.

You think I made my single bed and every day sat down

to those mad voices in my head

so you could come around and gawk?

Go away. And take

that maudlin moonlight with you.

Those whippoorwills, too,

sing-sawing like blind men

on their way to the john.

These coins on my grave —

somebody figures how

I'm running out of money here?

Get them out of my sight.

And one more thing —

I'm not hankering to see you,

but if you do come back,

bring a sign for the foot of my grave:

"Spitting Permitted."

Make sure you get the spelling right.


The young service manager

comes round to explain,

as if someone were dying,

what will have to be done. "It's more,"

he says, "than we thought."

I want to tell him it's all right,

I've heard worse;

we're all orphans here.

Live long enough,

you might as well be a spider

in a corner of the basement,

year in, year out,

marvelously disguised.

But I like this young man

trying to help me understand

that the car is on its last breath.

"Another hour or so, Ma'am,"

he says. "I'm sorry for the wait."

It's all right; I'll be home soon,

perhaps to find you unpacking,

the cat murmuring to himself

like a contented chicken, the radio

waffling through its noise, the replenished Pontiac

exhaling slowly in the drive.

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The cafe's screen door slammed

after each customer and every dog

in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her props:

cigarette smoke and a beat-up guitar.

Seventeen — eighteen, maybe — she wandered among us,

her voice fetching and uneasy,

singing for dollars and nickels

as I passed the hat.

In that camouflage of grease and smoke,

we waited for our futures —

safe, we thought,

the screen door between us

and the trolling dark.


It's 3 a.m.

Fog permeates Casablanca

as fog floats above the Ouachita,

the river this town lies ragtag along.

Those flimmering creatures on the screen are dead,

the town at this hour is dead,

the vapor of that river rises

to touch my feet.

Now the early morning train

clangoring through Arkadelphia

I stumble toward my coat and my valise.

I must be gone

before the Germans,

the closed borders,

the informant sun.

O Ingrid, Humphrey, Sydney, Paul,

shadows on the banks of my life,

I point the remote and exile you all


I had heard of Hemingway's time in Piggott, Arkansas —

a studio in a barn, a famous manuscript.

Now, invited to these grounds,

I enter the studio.

November niggles the grass, the trees

as Hemingway stands at his typewriter, his back to me,

papers scattered like lilies across a pond.

As he walks toward a wall

where the heads of animals have come to die again,

one, an impala, finds the rest of its body and slips it on,

kicking the studio into a maelstrom of dust

that moves like a gasp to slather Piggott,

erasing the town square

and the last evening train.

The next morning, I ask around.

No one has noticed an impala on the loose

or extra dust. Folks ply the square idly and complain

of the train last night splitting their sleep as usual,

the lunch special at Donna's, the threat of rain.

I make my way to the studio. The windows are there,

the door, the roof.

An old lion in a stutter of sun, it sits

glinting and implacable.


Speaking of Jo McDougall


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