Once, you knew where you were going: from winter’s unambiguous branches through flushing eastern redbud toward the shabby linens of the South bleaching on dogwood racks. Toward manly honor and chaste womanhood, dusted with gunpowder, shaded from heat by genocidal legacies. Not so fast, youth I was. Not so neat. Sure, the glass of tea will sweat where tongues grow cool and slow as minted bourbon. Sure, some white shoppers won’t stand in the black cashier’s line, allow his wrist’s revolution to float their collards or mayonnaise jars over a scanner’s bloodshot eye. The hate you’ll recognize, thinking you can stand to one side. An innocent cartographer.
But malice won’t sit where you mapped it, emitting a predictable growl. Stop knowing everything and look around. Hear, above your banging pulse, an implicated tune, weathered and blue, voice of land pushed up sore, its grudges cold. Those notes twist down piney slopes, fume into creeks by whose banks the copperheads sun like slippery hieroglyphs. They scrawl a tale that had been camouflaged from you even as you sang your lines. Now the story holds you in its lap. Now it’s poised to strike.
Lesley Wheeler’s books include Radioland, Heterotopia, and the chapbook Propagation. Her poems and essays appear in Cold Mountain Review, Ecotone, and Gettysburg Review, and her next collection will be published by Tinderbox Editions in 2020. Wheeler is poetry editor of Shenandoah, lives in Virginia, and blogs about poetry at lesleywheeler.org
Header photo by Africa Studio, courtesy Shutterstock.