Winner : Terrain.org 7th Annual Poetry Contest
Selected by Eamon Grennan

 

Boyhood Trapped Between Water and Blood

 
1.

A boy, I knew nothing of the copperhead’s fangs,
swam with them most summers, sank with their faint mint smell
and blue-lit ripple flames of their bodies in creek water—

Kestrels of light
lunged through the water surface and flattened into one great trellis
of sun, every contour of the creek bed
branded in a fire that wove
                                                       its shape into shapelessness.

Salamanders and crawdads never bothered me,
nor the ticks that teemed on every branch—

                                                       I was alone
in that chapel of water and wind.

I lived in a yellow house smothered in leaf-shadow
and would dream at night of the creek, clear
as the smell of wood smoke
on a winter dusk blown with stars,
                                                       even as June rains

engraved the water
with meaning, forever blurred by the sudsy iron that
                                                       turned water to blood.

My eyes itched with a grief
that was mine and not mine

                                                       every night, every night.

North into woods, just out of view,
leaned a rotten three-walled shack
with no roof and the words “die nigger” inscribed
in blood on the west wall—the letters
flanked in blood-red swastikas,

                                                       a shade of crimson

like the dace that darted in the creek’s oxbows;
and there were still signs
of a struggle: scraps of a green T-shirt,
a broken window toothed         in­­­­­­­­­­­­ the same blood,
the shattered pane like an eye
blinded,                                        never storm-cleansed,
                                                       never burned away.

 

2.

A boy, I carried sun-drunken notions
of time as song, the crispness
of fall and its subtle rumor—

I did not know why the wind
stirred some father-witted guilt
in me, and as I jumped
from one side of the ditch
to the other again and again,

I could not evade visions
of a man taken by a hoard of others
and dragged through
briars and the indifference
of deerberry and resurrection fern—

I knew even then, a boy,
that the man was being forced through
the final door for nothing
more than pigmentation,
and that the only sound he made
were the gasps of air the men

kicked out of him
as he lay fading in silence,
his last possession.

And there in the bramble still lay his clothes.
And there on the jagged stone lay the vision of his head.

A boy, I craved design,
a structure through which I came to
understand or escape

words that followed me
like the sound of footfalls
in the leaves just behind actual passage.

Some nights in spring the song thrush
bore out its brash and beautiful music,
as if the world had torn
and revealed an answer,

as if something more had pursued
me and kindled my insomnia
with a plea.

 

3.

Once a black boy named Seneca
ran with me down the road
and his family waved at us
and shouted encouragements.

We leaned headlong into our running
until breathless,
reckless through the moths
and the distant orchard light

and the moon-curve against
the back of my grandparents’
home where a lamp flicked
on and glowed as we passed.

That same night my grandmother
yanked me in and belted me
until I bled,
screaming the scriptures
until I could weep them back—

my crime the mere nearness
to a “nigger boy,” the “tacky” fact
that we were both fierce with joy.

 

4.

Eastward, heaps of goat bones dotted
a baseball field overgrown in sicklepod,
                                                       and every dusk for months
Seneca and I met to sift

through those mythic shapes, to stare
into the eye sockets of many skulls
as if they might rouse in us some memory
of another time, another creature,
to elude the heat and stifle

of that place, scalded with resentments
extravagant as the trees’ canopy,
the woods between my house
and the other world always nightfall,
                                                       unbroken shadow.

 

 

Poetry judge Eamon Grennan says...
I have to say that of all the good poems and selections submitted, my favorite was “Boyhood Trapped Between Water and Blood.” This brave poem begins with brief, plangent echoes of Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October”–to set the springs of memory running in a landscape and a weather richly, powerfully, beautifully evoked:

Kestrels of light
lunged through the water surface and flattened into one great trellis
of sun, every contour of the creek bed
branded in a fire that wove
                                                       its shape into shapelessness.

Salamanders and crawdads never bothered me,
nor the ticks that teemed on every branch—

                                                       I was alone
in that chapel of water and wind.

I lived in a yellow house smothered in leaf-shadow
and would dream at night of the creek, clear
as the smell of wood smoke
on a winter dusk blown with stars,
                                                       even as June rains

engraved the water

Quickly, however, both the angle and the poem’s temper shift and we are steeped in a deeply troubling memory–presented in a controlled language that never stumbles into melodrama. The poem presents us, then, with the horror such a childhood event–traumatic in its violence, its racial implications–lives in appalled memory. The poem lifts us, so, out its lyrically Dylanesque evocations of the natural world into the politically charged territory of bigotry and violence, starkly presented, bravely faced up to.

And there in the bramble still lay his clothes.
And there on the jagged stone lay the vision of his head.

A boy, I craved design,
a structure through which I came to
understand or escape

words that followed me
like the sound of footfalls
in the leaves just behind actual passage.

From here, through other laden sections, the poem continues–without flinching or losing hold of its difficult threads, to end–in an evocation that has (I suspect) something of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” enlargements–in its dignified yet compact conclusion, as it comes to rest in:

a baseball field overgrown in sicklepod,
                                                       and every dusk for months
Seneca and I met to sift

through those mythic shapes, to stare
into the eye sockets of many skulls
as if they might rouse in us some memory
of another time, another creature,
to elude the heat and stifle

of that place, scalded with resentments
extavagant as the trees’ canopy,
the woods between my house
and the other world always nightfall,
                                                       unbroken shadow.

Grand! In the best sense grand. It was a pleasure to read and admire it.

 

William WrightWilliam Wright is author or editor of over 20 books. His central loves are poetry, the teaching of poetry, and literary writing in general. He teaches master classes in writing around the country and works with creative writing students at several universities. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, the writer Michelle Wright. His most recent book of poems is Tree Heresies (Mercer University Press, 2015).
 
Ready more poetry from William Wright appearing in Terrain.org: three poems and three more poems.

Photo of copperhead by skeeze, courtesy Pixabay.

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13 Responses

  1. kevin miller

    A terrific poem and Grennan takes the time you wish all judges would take. Kudos to both writer and judge: excellence all around.

    Reply
  2. Arlene

    It is a lovely poem; “my eyes itched with a grief/that was mine and yet not mine” is powerful. In fact, I love the poem’s physicality.

    Reply
  3. Albert Hwang

    What an absolute tour de force–and I’m tempted to call this a masterpiece. I have read this six times, now, and invited my wife to read it with me. I have read WW’s work before, but of course not this one. For me, William Wright is among the best poets writing today. Cheers to Terrain.org and to the judge.

    Reply
  4. Daniel Corrie

    Another potent addition to the body of William Wright’s work. Wright is an American literary treasure.

    Reply
  5. Sally Russon

    WOW.

    I read a lot of poems. I haven’t encountered one this good in years. After I drown myself in some NFL and junk food, I’m revisiting this one tomorrow. Unbelievably beautiful.

    Reply
  6. Robert Lee Kendrick

    A tremendous poem, shot through with longing for an interconnected-ness that seems to lie in the natural world, but that has always-already been stained — literally, in this narrative — with the violence that people bring to whatever they touch. When the narrator remembers that “My eyes itched with a grief/that was mine and not mine,” he throws us into the rent ground between subject and object, immanent and transcendent, design and random accident, that has no comforting resolution yet still bursts with beauty, and where the cost of being “fierce with joy” is dismemberment — psychic, or, for the lynched man, physical. Yet, the narrator doesn’t give in to despair. The poem ends with a hope, albeit one that is “always nightfall/ unbroken shadow.” Haunting and sublime.

    Reply
  7. Jannette

    The truth of our southern childhoods relieved. Clear and concise. I ran that road. I swam that pond. I loves that friend. I revealed I. That joy. I suffered at the hands of those who did not let love surpass fear.

    Reply
  8. Jannette

    This poem blew my mind in a loving and post naturalism kind of way. Truth is, when I read William Wright I feel like I am reading something I should have written. I thank him for every word….that brings me closer to myself.

    Reply
  9. James Howell

    Wright’s poetic strength gives voice to the shock that a white child of the South feels when learning of the violence inflicted by one’s own kind. The poem approaches this difficult topic through Wright’s usual insight into the strangeness of a natural world that reveals itself but that does not decode its mysteries. The natural world’s stirring is its intention and end; it articulates a presence both evident and unknowable — a language without mind — something that the narrator feels *could* be known were the message not its own obfuscation.

    The examination of the natural world bears upon racial violence, revealing how bent humanity creates a cursed violence that lacks the innocence of a viper’s toxin. The child witnesses threat in nature and humankind, and he sees, with horror, that his social world pushes hate-violence upon him as duty when the natural world merely uses violence as upkeep.

    As a child, he is powerless in the face of violence. He is even passively complicit as its inheritor. Despite lacking this worldly power to interfere, he converts inherited guilt into conscience and refuses a killing religion. He understands that hatred is learned even while white cruelty makes that hatred horribly comprehensible. Natural violence exists as a mystery independent of justice, but white violence in the South is already decoded and, worse, his to receive. Without turning to the imagery and language of Christianity, Wright’s poem turns over sin as the unwilled transmission of injustice combined with the human burden of choice: how do we respond to a social world whose ways and means give us up to our own potential monstrosity?

    The poem gives the reader its narrator’s gift: a share in the conversion of just guilt into conscience without condescending to the reader didactically. He refuses the share of violence that’s given to him to understand amid the mystery of natural death — a hard first step toward participating in justice, articulated through the Romantic soul.

    Reply
  10. Dixon Hearne

    I greatly admire Terrain. This particular poem is beautifully-written and quite moving — well-deserved recognition! It could well have been scenes from my own boyhood growing up here in Louisiana. Looking forward to reading new work by Will Wright.

    Reply
  11. C Jelley

    Masterful. An excellent poem and a welcome addition to an already impressive body of work. Forget the matrix, William Wright’s work always conjures a hidden world both strange and hauntingly familiar. It invites casual reader and professional writer alike to immerse “alone in that chapel of water and wind.”

    Reply
  12. Philip Musgrove

    Oh my God. Gut-wrenching. Terror and beauty intermixed into sublimity. Thanks to the judge and editors for this poem. THIS is good poetry. Strike that: GREAT.

    Reply

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