Early Shift and Understory (2 poems) – by Julie Hensley

Early Shift

The three points of Orion’s belt stud the sky above the barn,
and Nohl’s steel-toed boots crunch the hoarfrosted grass,
his steps the only sound breaking the blanket of silence
the January night has left settled over the mountain

like thick down. The hens are still roosting.
The dark-eyed juncos that will stir when the sun stretches,
its silvery fingers striking flint along the ridge, are still
nestled deep in cedar trees. The barn exhales

the scent of hay and warm manure, the smell of the horse
himself, sweet and musty like fresh sawdust. Nohl swings
open the stall door, and the animal moves into the paddock.
It takes the heavy iron edge of a post hole digger
to crack the ice covering the trough this morning.

The horse watches suspiciously, then steps forward, bowing
its head over black water, steam rising from its nostrils.
Nohl watches a moment before tossing fresh hay over the fence rails.
And when he turns, he stares a moment more at the dark
window behind which his wife sleeps,

the dog curled at her feet. The closest thing to prayer,
a clear winter morning. He wishes she could see him
in the quiet dark, just before daylight, just before the wind
moves over the ridge, see him out here, just beginning,
when the world is so far removed from anger. A moment more,

and then he steps quietly into the cabin and stokes the stove
with a few logs of dry oak, so that by the time he opens
the door to his truck, puffs of white rise from the chimney
and gather over the shingles, and it seems as if that smoke spills
directly into the smudged light of the milky way. It seems
as if he is starting up the entire universe.



The sway of the saddle lulls Grace
into a trance. The horse knows well
this trail, the way it skirts
the large hemlocks leading down
to the stream, which he fords
calmly. She could almost drift
to sleep—the gentle creak of leather,
the vague vibration of bees
hovering over trout lilies—
only the violet blaze of the redbuds
draws her back, the limbs cracked
under the weight of the winter’s ice
storm, overflow with blossoms,
petaling, not just along narrow stems,
but blanketing every crevice in the bark.
Many of the branches are nearly severed
completely. Surely, they won’t last
the season, but this—their one last
attempt—is nothing short of valiant,
these small trees, willing
themselves to keep growing,
pushing buds out into any place
the light will touch.


Julie Hensley is a faculty member of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University, where she teaches both fiction and poetry. She has been awarded fellowships from Jentel Arts, Yaddo, Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and the Tyrone Guthrie Center. Her poems and stories have appeared in dozens of journals, including Image: Art, Faith Mystery, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, and Willow Springs. She is the author of a collection of poems, Viable, and a book of fiction, Landfall: A Ring of Stories.