Ars Poetica Written with Berry Juice and Rust
From soup beans, scour pads, blackberries,
morels, margarine tubs, woodsheds,
so much has been made.
Even from gob piles, tipples, coke ovens,
the holes and pits that riddle all creation,
give riches to the strong.
Dig sixteen tons, what do you get?
Open, ragged, these gashes in the earth
groan if I stand close, if I listen.
I try to smell rain, the world set alive.
The sky is speaking forth in sulfur.
Moving past rusted rails to Buffalo Creek,
I fill another tub with slurried water.
Testimony: Johnny Lee Thomas at Parchman, 1929
For shooting dice in a jook, bad company,
seven years at the farm. Clattered awake,
three a.m., he eats weevil corn, salt meat.
He tells the folklorist they castor oil, cage,
mark up men who don’t work; he clears
for the sand buster, pulls cotton stalks,
high-rolls the fields faster than the whip:
White folks, when you get to throwing
that loaded leather, my foot gets as light
under the bottom as a piece of paper.
I wonder when is my time?
Italicized lines are drawn from Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William R. Ferris.
What the Reporter Observes During
a Car Tour at Angola, 2007
Time is the sun unmoving, the hot stone that draws
water from every vein, parches the backs of necks,
the hands. And the big stripe men are shuttled from
cell blocks to fields of cotton, okra, peas they work
for thirty cents a day. And cries swell in the dirt-filled
throats of those buried in the levees they died to build.
In the fields, guards on horses, yellow okra blooms.
Stumps of cypress poke out from the prison lake.
Aubade for Bessie Smith
Today, a hobo raps at her door, she says, come in,
have coffee, a fresh pot. Today, in her green satin robe,
she fries ham for Jack Gee, and sings Muddy Water,
a Mississippi moan. She sways in easy grace, laughs
with the landlady, the garbageman, the red hot bees.
Sometimes the hives drip honey, and the queen keeps
her wings, the gold hexagons, her voice saved in wax.
Dry Run Creek
a dead black calf / its eye chemical blue
– Tracy K. Smith
I read stories about cows attacking, cows in agony,
a malformed calf, mouths spewing blood and slime,
a creek that bubbles. Stories about green water, pipes
dripping foam, unlined digestion ponds seeping
the company sludge. Veterinarians won’t help,
the company just about owns the town. The farmer
films himself cutting apart his calf. This won’t get
covered up, I’m going to bring it out in the open
for people to see. He shows tarry teeth, the calf’s
tumorous brain, cauliflower tongue, green innards.
I can’t hide from stories about power, greed,
some that’s mine, some that harms my neighbors,
people I love, so many stories choked by grief.
Here I look for earlier scenes—the family’s acres
a homeplace, boys working long hours in gardens,
maybe eating watercress from the creek, muskrats
their mother flours, browns, and stews. At night,
maybe the boys spread quilts under elderberry trees,
moths crawling over their hay-scratched hands
as their eyes pull new shapes from tree-shadows,
the shapes whatever they want them to be.
Italicized lines are drawn from articles in Huffington Post and New York Times Magazine.
Header photo by Free-Photos, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of William Woolfitt by Arlyne VanHook.