NEA Literature Fellowships

James Allen Hall

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(2011 - Poetry)

Family Portrait

When I say my mother, the thing inside me
that strips for you begins to writhe
under burlesque lighting, leaves a sweat outline in your sheets. 

When I say my father, the taunting auctioneer
comes forward and bows at the waist, smiling.
When I say my father, he hands me the camera,

he says, Go ahead, big shot, take her picture
So I do, I maul her into memory.

When I say the end, no embrace, no vengeance
can bring her back. When I say I loved her,

I mean no story is true. 
Not even tenderness lasts. 


If I could turn the photograph, bring my mother's face
to the bright eye of myth, my unflinching lens,
you'd see she's mouthing the words: Take the picture already. 

You'd see my father's lust, his loathing
molding her body into some four-legged
photogenic thing, whipped and adored.

You'd see my mother emerging from the ghost world
limb by limb, carrying on her bowed shoulders
Eros and his sadomasochistic twin. 

In the dim violated light, she's marked
by a man who can't let any part of her go. 
In the light my father makes in the dark,
I was mothered into art.

James Allen Hall is the author of Now You're the Enemy (2008), which won The University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series Prize. His poems and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as TriQuarterly, Boston Review, Redivider, Bellingham Review, and American Poetry Review. Now You're the Enemy won the 2009 Lambda Literary Award, the Helen C. Smith Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, and the George Garrett Award for New Writing from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He has received fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.  He teaches creative writing at the State University of New York-Potsdam.

Photo by Dustin W. Hall

Author's Statement

Making poems is solitary work. Being awarded an NEA Fellowship reaffirms that there's a community that needs and desires poetry. It reaffirms that poem-making is worth the sacrifices every poet makes. News of the fellowship came to me at a strange time in my life. A week earlier, I was in a hospital, watching my grandmother die. She'd suffered a stroke that devastated her brain beyond measurable neurological response. She was the kind of woman who believed in the redemptive power of work. She gardened, she made her little piece of earth beautiful. I can't shake the feeling that the fellowship is a kind of dictum: get back to work, finish your new poems, keep on doing this thing you love. It matters: make from the ruins something beautiful.