Letter to America: Poem by Lesley Wheeler

Letter to America by Lesley Wheeler

One Poem

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The South

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 WheelerLesley 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.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.