Barbara Presnell

What Flutters


        Homefront after the Battle of Bellicourt, 1918


Heat rising. Tick of afternoon sun.

The screen door, banging. A telegram.

When it comes, she’s in the kitchen making dinner.

She slips her greased finger beneath the flap,

hands trembling so she can hardly read. 

Company almost wiped out. Stop. Our boys

fought bravely to the end. Stop.

It’s the almost she clings to as day splinters

into days, then a week.

             Wings tipping. Grass that pillows.

Loose fabric.  A place called France—she’s seen it on a map

and Slim sent a postcard back in July. 

Words. Picture of a cow in a field like theirs.

Bone jur scribbled above the cows ear.

Seems like a fine place on the back side. And,

Everybody says hi. I sure miss

your cold ice tea, Mama.


            Flotilla of red leaves. Fine hairs

of a sweet potato. Screen door

banging.  Her husband Josiah holds the letter. 

Hes alive. Our boy.  Then names those gone: 

the Dixons youngest,  Jimmy Gatlin,

Big John Pugh. More.

His gray chin on her shoulder.

Air they breathe.


Between Rains


At the Battle of Bellicourt, Sept. 28, 1918


His rifle is steady

like he’s got a bead on a deer

though nothing’s ahead but the barbed wire

him and his fellows aim to break through.

Shoulder to shoulder on their bellies

against the wall of this trench,

the only sound some low-breathed prayers

and down the line a boy who can’t stop crying.

At the order, they’ll run like hell,

take what comes, try to give it back.


He’s fast.  Always could

outrace anybody in town. Skinny too.

If raindrops can’t hit him, like his mama says,

maybe Huns’ bullets can’t either.

Some fellow passes a cigarette.  He drags,

sends it down the line, not looking right or left

but into the purple-pink sky

where a bird circles, its occasional caw

cracking the dawn. It’s all luck anyway,

he thinks, who you’re born to, what country,


how tall, where you end up, when you die.

A sharp pop. He jumps, and watches

the bird spiral down. Jesus, Hartley,”

somebody hisses, a curdle of smoke

rising up from Hartley's gun. Goddamn

bird,” Hartley replies. “Goddamn flying

bird.”  Then the sharp whistle, the call,

and he scrambles with the rest of them

over the top, the mud, so much mud,

splattering on every part of him.

Annie Gum Chum

Southampton, England, June 4, 1944  

He calls her that because it’s how they met,

her leaning against the brick wall of the pub,

skinny blue dress, cocked head rippled

with dark hair, eyes like shiny ale.

Got any gum, chum? Smile he fell into.

He happened to have some Juicy Fruit.


She works in a factory in the village

but won’t tell him what kind.

Can’t, say her bosses. Nobody knows

what they’re waiting for. Nobody knows,

but something big stirs among them

like the hint of warm air.


He looks for her at the gate each afternoon

when girls spill out the factory doors,

walks with her to town for a mild and bitter.

Air raids have left her spooked.

When he scrapes his chair leg, she jumps

then settles, slides a Lucky Strike from his pack,


laughs. He watches as she pops her gum, lights up,

blows a smoke ring that rises and unravels.

She wants to take him home to meet her parents

but he doesn’t even know her name.

Don’t tell them anything and dont ask, his captain advises.

Remember we’re just passing through.



Blue Star War Mother


            Summer 1944


Her oldest boy Slim, too old for war,

brings her the box he calls radio

thick wood cabinet with knobs and a grill,


wires he strings through the doorway

of the bedroom to the kitchen.

He says, “Turn this button here, Mama.


You can listen to President Roosevelt,

and reporters across the ocean

talking about what all we’re doing


to win this war. Sometimes she gets

a letter from Bill. “Can’t tell you anything

I don’t know myself,” he’ll write.


Tom sends clippings from Stars and Stripes

with notes in the margin: “We were here”

or “Me and the boys were in on this one.”


From Charlie, nothing.

Three blue stars in her front window.

Every night before bed,


she shuffles to the window

where one by one she walks her finger

around the edge of each one,


feels the coarse fabric, the uneven stitch.

At breakfast, she stares at the box as though

her boys are inside. “You got to turn it on, Mama,”


Slim tells her, pulls a chair beside hers,

turns the knob, and static worse than

dying chickens screams out then settles.




            Tessy-sur-vire, France, 1944

He slides his knife down the inside edge of the can,

scoops out a bladeful of beef stew, opens wide.

When he pulls it out, a line of blood

rises from the corner of his mouth.


That won’t get you sent home,

someone calls over.  And,

Don’t let your mama find out

the army taught you to eat with your knife.

Laughter, even from him.

He’s leaning on a fence post,

couple of sheep on a hilly slope as backdrop, 
and he’s thinking beans, crisp and green,


not these mushy brown things they feed him,

fresh beef, not gravied lumps.

Two months now and just one bath,

hedgerows thicker than this stew,


and damned if every day another boy

doesn’t get hit or go crazy with it all.

Late July and nothing but mud. Half the time

it rains, the other half, it rains more.


Still he gets up in the morning

surprised to be breathing. He’s with

the best bunch of fellas ever was.

He’s dropped some weight. They all have,


but he’s stronger than ever, muscled with fear.

He laughs again, touches the corner of his mouth

with his thumb, stirs the muck called dinner,

slides another bladeful in.

Barbara Presnell is the author of Piece Work, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize (CSU Poetry Center, 2007). Her work also appears in three award-winning chapbooks and in The Southern Review, Cimarron Review, Connotation Press, Prime Number, Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices, and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. As a documentary poet, she writes often of social and cultural change, particularly in the South.



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