The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
of place who understand travel but not amnesia.
from “This Is My Third and Last Address to You” --Adrienne Rich
Almost the age when memory falters,
I fear being made to count backward
by seven’s, to answer to date, year, and
Presidents, as if those numbers and names
matter more in the end than this place
where I stand at the same kitchen window,
observing the same pines set swaying by wind,
reaching upward as I’ll reach, come morning,
my arms to the ceiling, breathing the dark out
of body and spirit, exhaling that old dream
of nothingness: laying my head down to sleep.
Now Rocky Face Ridge catches fire
in the last light and, though I can’t hear it
from where I stand, Cullowhee Creek tumbles into
the Tuckaseegee, always unscrolling beneath me
the names I already know. Snowbird.
Buzzards Roost. Weyahutta. Oconaluftee.
I don’t know how long names can last
if there’s no one to care where they live.
What I saw on the hairpin curve down from
the Chimney Tops, white as snow, I’ve not forgotten.
Phacelia. And how, on the trail leading
up to the summit of Suncota Ridge,
I saw sauntering toward me a young woman
I could have sworn was the reincarnation of
every spring wildflower ever named anywhere.
Closer she comes to me each April,
as if she means more than I have a lifetim
to know. Roundabout her, her white Easter dress
whispers every thing I want to keep living
here in this valley that cups the last swallow of light,
every name I must reach to remember or else
lose them, hillside by hillside, to darkness.
from BLACK SHAWL
Tonight by the flare
of a pine knot, his stallion tears
clean through the limp fog that lays
itself down along Beggarman's Trace.
When he stops at the Jump-Off
to guzzle more whisky, she coughs
at his back till he turns, and his breath
in her face smells like death
or close to it. Below, lamps illumine
the houses where she should know women
are already telling how she’s become nothing
but wind they hear mouthing
temptation: Let Go. (Now she’s
no longer neighbor, they’ll let her be
damned to a shallow grave.) They try
to listen as far as they can for the cry
of the bobcat their men will be out
tracking all night. They want it brought
down by its throat or else, goodness knows,
what’s running wild might come too close.
from Coming to Rest
I lie down in her sea bed that bears
me back home to the nothing left
after her house burned around it.
Her lavender handkerchief knotted
round nickels and dimes. On her dresser
a brooch in the shape of a peacock’s tail.
Organdy curtains that breathed in
and out when she opened the windows
for March to blow through like a lioness
stalking the boxwoods or a lamb bleating
out by the pump house. Her hairpins
sown over the rugs. Her voluminous apron.
Her false teeth that grinned
every night from a tall iced-tea glass
as she pulled off her house dress,
her shimmy, her bloomers
that even now swell like a mainsail with
nothingness. Lorna Doone shortbread
she nibbled till she fell asleep, leaving crumbs
in the bed sheets like sand from the white beach
at Panama City whenever I crawled into bed
with her body that smelled of the ocean
at low tide and tasted of salt
when she pulled me too close to her.
for Lee Smith
At night she watched the road
and sang. I’d sigh and settle on the floor
beside her. One song led
to one more song. Some unquiet grave.
A bed of stone. The ship that spun round
three times ‘ere it sank,
near ninety verses full of grief.
She sang sad all night long
and smiled, as if she dared me
shed a tear. Sweet Lizzie Creek swung low
along the rocks, and dried beans rattled
in the wind. Sometimes her black dog howled
at fox or bear, but she’d not stop,
no, not for God Himself, not even if He came
astride a fine white horse and bore the Crown
of Glory in His hands. The dark was all
she had. And sometimes moonlight
on the ceaseless water. “Fill my cup,”
she’d say, and sip May moonshine
till her voice came back as strong as bullfrogs
in the sally grass. You whippoorwills
keep silent, and you lonesome owls go haunt
another woman’s darkest hours. Clear,
clear back I hear her singing me to sleep.
“Come down,” she trolls,
“Come down among the willow
shade and weep, you fair
and tender ladies left to lie alone,
the sheets so cold,
the nights so long.”
from WILDWOOD FLOWER
from Catching Light
Don’t call to me anymore.
I’m not listening.
Might as well
tell all the shadows it’s time
to sneak out
of the woods, easy pickings
in here while I sleep, empty hands
on my breast
and my breath
barely stirring the air
as my open
mouth dreams in
and dreams out
than I’ll ever
need, each of them hungry
for who knows
what when I waken.
from Coming to Rest
They ripened to myth on her tongue, sweetness
always beyond reach, out there at the edge
of abandoned farms, back in the thickets
where no decent woman dared go. Not that she
scorned the mayhaws her black neighbors left
at her door. Toiling hours in tropical swelter,
she boiled them down into a red syrup
salvaged in jelly jars. How much of her sweat
she stirred into that crimson stock I still
contemplate when it comes time to make jelly
again and I find myself roaming the fruit stalls
till I smell them, lifting both hands full,
as she would have done, to my nose,
understanding why she bent to every plum,
melon, and peach, every strip of fresh sugar cane.
Thus have these scuppernongs ripened
for too long inside my refrigerator.
Past time to ward off the coming rot,
time to remember how she’d set to work
with no recourse to Sure-Gel. Just lemon and
sugar. A spoon. Cheesecloth. Most of a morning
or afternoon, watching the syrup drip slowly,
then more slowly still down the spoon’s sticky
edge. Leaving everything it touched, as always,
a mess, and for what? On my windowsill,
seven jars through which the light of this late
summer afternoon takes its time, quickening
each pot of pale amber juices to sweet everlasting.