Now all is one highway. One combine, yellow, so long settled in dirt—crows make
a disco of it. One logging truck, the Merritt’s, one cropduster whose circular sweep
of blue smoke is the summer’s news.
Your moving truck cuts through cotton barbed to prick fingers that pluck it & flat pasture
where cows stand mucked up to their ankles in mudponds—ghostcows drawn with skeletal ribs & haunches.
Humidity here will swamp the average while windspeed sticks on still, large motorized
vehicle count: sixteen. This is no Memphis. Camelback houses, shotgun doubles, frontyard chickens, cockfight
Wednesday, Dixie Dandy Grocery sells catfish bloodbait, bright orange hats, gas, bullets.
I see you open parsonage cabinets already filled with dry goods from the pounding thrown for your family’s arrival:
sacks of flour, cream of tartar, grits—four cardboard shakers of Creole hot stuff. You’ve
never used newspaper for tablecloth, sucked the head & eaten the tail of crawfish, known 2 dollar wine tasted so pink.
Is the hot new jack-off topic in every men’s bathroom. Which makes things multiply.
I see you in black jeans with two holes torn out the knees & a three-stringed
halter that shows what a scant
mile you believe you could walk on your smarts. What you don’t know: No one wants you
drunk to hear you recite the highschool mercy speech from Merchant of Venice & that dirt
road curved through one
pitch black mile of swampgrass will not lead you to the Julliard your aunt & mother put
money in your savings for—but to a shack small as a four walled-dock
& about as stable.
I would tell you not to go in. Or rope you like a calf & lock you in a trunk till dawn
if that’s what it took not to watch you down those Crown & Cokes—throw your
fivers in the air & laugh—
your paper money falling by the barstool. Your snowy egret breasts. Your limbs akimbo
across the pool table or in the back parking lot where you will go limp, deaf,
& dumb for six men
who will square you up under them casually as if laying down bricks or digging grave dirt.
After this, you will see their faces at night, you will piss your bed, you will
carry a steak knife
in your purse.
At sixteen, you kneel to touch letters on a plantation stone: Bill Chase/A Beloved And/
Faithful Slave. I have some questions for
Mr. Chase: What name did your birth
mother palm onto your crown & was
she then sold down the Mississippi? How
could I love the river if this were so—
river at sixteen, I think I know? Rich
black with delta sediment—river who
could carry a cypress three thousand miles
on its back & still not ache—who floods,
fathoms, & contains as weather designs.
Whose currents copper in the deep
draught of afternoon sun & who moves
the temporal shore. Bill Chase, I want to
know if you haunt the places that hurt you—
here in Newellton? Do you retrace fields
for one last look at your sons & daughters—
the boy you were at sixteen? Or do you go,
now, like the river goes—breaking through
levees as you see fit, calling up storms to
frighten Zeus, letting poor fishermen think it’s
luck—not you—who wash fish to their feet?
Maybe you are the patron saint of lost girls
caught in the wrong bar with their drawers
pulled to their ankles and you can avenge me.
You, who in life could have been tied to a stump
& hot tar poured on your balls then set aflame
for raising an eyebrow in the wrong direction?
Do you have enough lightning left in you to
brand the cheek of the barman whose face
was one bad freckle? Could you shackle the
one who said sorry to his wife’s bed frame? How
long would it take to scalp the third one if you
tied his mullet to a tractor & dredged him through
gravel? Could you nail horse shoes to the hands
& feet of the one with the rodeo buckle—
or maim, with a shovel, the one who knuckled me
in place? Maybe you could stick a meat hook
through the solar plexus of man number six
& lift his body to the trees till his blood drains
& he becomes the carrion special stripped by
birds to skeletal remains? Your marker must
get hot as brimstone out here with no shade.
Maybe it is just a stone & you are not a god—
but one dead human. Were you alone like me
in Newellton—wanting a plot of land to own
where no one would correct, with a whip, what
crop you planted in crooked rows? With someone
to trust your secrets to, who would not ask why?
but make a balm for you & say: I’m on your side.
I will neither call you Bill Chase, nor beloved,
nor slave. Neither will I call you ghost, river, rain—
these are not your name. I cannot fathom
either your source or end any better than I
could keep by own body from falling where
you lay—or keep my hands from touching
this stone. My shadow separates from me as if
she never belonged to me. Maybe our pluvial
shadows join—yours rising up from groundwater—
mine flung downward in dew.
At sixteen. I want to beg you: don’t leave your viola on the pile of dirty clothes at your
bedside where you will step through it’s delicate, tigerwood maple body—think
of music here as a splintered
gray dock where Grieg, Bach, & Rachmaninoff share the same tenuous plank & every
other board that keeps hold over Ox Bow Lake is named George Jones. Old
Possum has a fan club such
that if he’s too drunk to stand up for his concert one man tapes his ribs straight & the
other holds his microphone. But there is no repair shop for your instrument
in Newellton—when your plank
breaks you may well as hang a wreath upon the door for your awkward little concertos.
Hang a wreath upon the door for your ignorance, while you’re at it. I think if I
can start with getting you
to wash & fold your clothes I can save six men. Button back their jeans, starch & tuck
their shirts, set them back to playing darts in that odd doll house, cut their
liquor with water, keep
you on the porch, make you practice harder. Wild bird, wild would-be daughter—I think
if I can get you to put your viola in its crushed velvet case, proper, instead of being
so careless—I can save you.
That if I cannot go back & save you—