Read an Excerpt
By GREG ALAN BROWNDERVILLE
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Greg Alan Brownderville
All right reserved.
Chapter One PRESS IN
Me and Sparrel Rance were friends
ever since they clipped our unbiblical cords.
Side by side as babies,
we rode our mamas' cotton sacks,
and later worked from can't to can't
together in the fields.
Soon as Aubrey, Sparrel's brother,
got old enough to shadow us,
he made it three,
and Dark Corner, Arkansas,
had never seen such devilment.
Our fifteenth summer,
men and boys both, me and Sparrel
lit a fire below a rotten tupelo
and smoked out the bees.
We sawed the tree down, stole the hive,
and trucked it home along a path as wavy as a panther tail.
We cut the comb
in little waffly squares to go in every jar.
That was the awfullest amount of honey—
filled up two number three washtubs
like we took a bath in. After we got it all canned,
a few jars had some live bees in them.
We were sucking honey off the comb,
and Sparrel asked if I believed in ghosts.
I told him I would have to think about it.
He said one night when he was six, a shadowman
with an ankly cypress branch for a cane
shambled in the house
and lifted Aubrey off his corn shucks,
held him for a spell, and said, "Are you dead yet?"
Me and Sparrel went frog gigging
one night. I held the light.
Where the swamp was loggy
and we couldn't pass,
you'd a thought bluegrass done gone metal,
way he worked that banjo of a chain saw.
Gar passed the boat
like black submarines.
We floated, listening to locusts, tree frogs, panthers—
thought we saw a bull shark up from the Gulf.
As the moon slipped under cloud cover
like a scared face,
drumfish took to drumming.
"Listen," Sparrel whispered.
"Listen to that drum—
it's like a stuttering heart."
I was paddling, not to get somewhere
but just for pleasure, working that lazy water,
and Sparrel said, "I swear
it was a wet tornado."
Said it a little too loud, like I was arguing.
"If I'd a jumped in, we both might a died.
I should a tried."
I told him he was talking crazy.
He said, "God won't save me—
he's doing me just like I done Aubrey."
Said sleep was a strong woman
but couldn't take him anymore.
Every night he stuck to his covers,
doused with sweat,
seeing Aubrey spit and flail and bob loud-eyed
like a Holy Roller getting baptized.
"One night," he said, "I threw my sheet off
and the demons come a-swishing in
chilly through my pores.
Next day I seen Jesus in overalls,
nibbling a ground-cherry.
He moseyed off into the tall cotton,
saying, 'See you in the funny papers.'"
This Monday at the market,
I spied a jar of raw local honey.
The comb was like a box of shells.
I thought of Sparrel Rance,
them eyes of his
like a kitten's not all the way open yet.
Late that man-child summer,
he fired a goose gun
at the stuttering drum in his chest
and left me,
left me a chain-saw banjo
and the need to truck with ghosts.
Dirt-stopped, eary mussel shells were strewn
across alluvium jigsawed by the sun.
Barefoot, I waited, saw Jack Langston dunk
all comers in the Cache. God's champion.
Tall cypress knees loomed gray along the bank
like tombstones. As the line shrank,
words from "Jesus on the Mainline" rang
inside my head. (Sister Lila had sung
a couple rounds to start the ceremony.)
Call him up, rolling off a Southern tongue,
sounded like "call them up," reminding me
of Uncle Paul, of all I couldn't be
now that I was Langston's kind of Christian.
Tangly red hair like dodder in the sun,
Paul taught me how to call them up: He stole
his mama's antique hand-crank telephone—
a little generator, powerful
enough to be our magic fishing reel.
With rubber seats and boots we'd float the Cache,
cathedral-quiet if not for chirp or splash.
Mirrored dimly in the river's brown,
tupelos towered—cypress, gum, and ash.
We'd hook two twelve-gauge wires up to the phone
and drop them in the water twelve feet down.
Finally, when I was twelve, my uncle said,
"Here, man this winder—you ain't no little kid."
The fish lived through the shock but couldn't swim
for minutes, only float. I cranked like mad.
As Paul took hold of the dip net, here they came:
flathead, blue cat, buffalo, and bream ...
It was time. My feet went clean invisible
and read the riverbed's treacherous Braille.
Langston covered my nose and mouth with white,
then braced my back and said, "Surrender all."
In a wet rush I felt my blood ignite
and shivered as I rose electrified.
I make fire underneath an iron pot
and kill a cat nothing but black on its back,
skin it and boil it like the two-head said—
"Stare in a looking glass and run them cat bones
cross your tongue, one by one, till your reflection
disappear like a snakehead in the river.
That's when the Devil got your soul, old boy."
Next thing I know, I'm naked as the mange
and scrabbling in wet weeds by a blue shack.
Peacocks laughing, I laugh back, and pie pans
go changalanga in the cherry tree—
scarecrow tambourines. I kill the scarecrow,
steal his garb, and walk into the sky,
through a giant crystal tepee made of sunrays.
HONEY BEHIND THE SUN
In glimmering coils tuba-serpents beg,
gaping their massive mouths
to gulp the lunar egg.
Trombonists blow their melodies cheek tight
and loose them like balloons
untied and yellowy bright.
In streaming sound-confetti the dead arrive
to claim this bead-strung city
as their afterlife.
Baby's in the king cake
God and the Devil one
Deep down in New Orleans
Honey behind the sun
Sister Law, a one-hundred-year-old preacher woman
and folk sculptor, walks to Cache River. Cypress knees
gather like silent monks around her. A daughter
of the forest and the river, she's at peace
among her holy men. Kneeling beside the water,
speckled with red haws and tea colored from leaf tannin,
she waits for driftwood. Her first find looks like a rabbit
in blurry midair stride, the next like fighting bears,
a third like her young face not yet crosshatched with years.
She lets them go. Breathing to still her imagination,
she knows the hardest thing to make now is the habit
of saying amen to the river, amen, amen.
MAWU NAMES HER CHIEF ASSISTANT
Mawu, the dreaming Dahomean goddess,
escorted little Legba, her sly son,
through the yam garden. "I will bless
the new moons in your eyes with mystic vision,"
she said, "your hands with power. Human beings will honor
the dog, your totem beast;
worship in white, your ritual color;
and serve you oil and cornmeal cakes, your sacred feast.
"I will teach you the magic alphabet,
my deepest secret, and every evening write
beautiful poems about our planet—
mail to the dwellers of earth, to activate
their days and destinies." She smiled. "I am naming you
the cosmic carrier, next
to me the mightiest god of Voudou."
Sniggering, Legba thought, Me tamper with the text.
ART IN HEAVEN
Fishermen lift their question marks from the lake
in sudden rain. The clean horizon line,
a perfect moon, and its reflection make
an obelus, a great division sign.
By the shore, I walk this glistening road alone—
singing, against the wind's delirious keening,
of the glad primal iamb. Divine breath,
by wizardry of words, gave life to man
to complicate the tale. In the beginning
was poetry. Then God invented death.
There were shadows, there were shivering and prayer.
Tatterdemalions crammed inside a cave,
we smelled of our kill and richly of our maker.
The firelight deemed us lovely, fit to save.
I could reforest Eden with a phrase,
declare the cursive honeysuckle law,
he thought, but easy mercy would have marred
his poem, and he refused to compromise,
too proud to play the deus ex machina.
How can I save my creatures—and my art?
My god, I feel him live—I feel him die.
Arrows of rain. A lightning claw takes hold
of a leafless tree to shake hands in the sky.
Some strange white thing, as if the gush of road
were a gentle river, makes a mad descent
through blue-gray light and crashes, bleeds, transforms.
Gravity-panicked at the pavement's edge,
the bird is a book flapping in the wind.
Tomorrow crazed black flies will come in swarms,
characters loose and hungry for a page.
LORD, MAKE ME A SHEEP
Brother Langston's sermon over, we all stood.
Every head bowed, every eye closed.
A flannel-shirted lumberjack of a deacon named Joe Paul James
was bawling and squalling as usual:
"O Lowered, Jayzus, Lowered, move in our midst, Lowered."
Brother Langston said, "I don't keer
if you're a sinner man or woman or a holy saint of God—
come on, people, press in!
Get in under the spout where the glow-ree's coming out!
I want to see a hundred percent in this altar."
My older brother Eric knew the roving prayer warriors
had him on their Holy Ghost Hit List.
Had he stayed put, they might have come to his seat
and made a scene of wooing him back to the Lord.
(Or worse. One time, when a fifteen-year-old boy
ignored an altar call, an elder called him out by name,
said he had committed The Unpardonable Sin,
said he could pull his hair out in the altar
from "now till doomsday" but God
would never have him, never save him.)
So Eric eased up front and knelt
on a pew of knotty pine in the second row,
hoping to go unnoticed—a foolish move
that made him all the more conspicuous,
a timid sinner boy running from the Lord.
He bowed his head on folded forearms, and could smell
the Strawberry-Watermelon Hubba Bubba on his trapped breath.
The voice of Sister Lou, our piano player,
floated across the church—Swing low, sweet chariot ...
Then a firm, vibrating hand
gripped the back of Eric's head like a gearshift.
It was Joe Paul James.
He bawled in a creepy, weepy falsetto,
"Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep."
On "sheeeeeeeep" Joe Paul hit a spooky minor note
like stormy winds that rattle windows, open and slam doors.
Eric, not a Bible buff, had no clue
what the goal of Joe Paul's prayer could be
except to turn him into a sheep.
While Joe Paul was slobbering
through the same prayer over and over
("Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep!"),
Eric lifted up his head and cried out,
The church fell gravely quiet,
and Joe Paul withdrew his hands and backed away
as if Eric were a holdup artist or a wolf,
anything but a sheep.
Eric stood up and sauntered back to his pew,
sat down beside me, and whispered,
"There's some world-class kooks in this church, I'm here to tell you."
A few folks flashed Eric V-browed frowns,
but most people, our parents among them,
tried to act as though nothing had happened.
Soon, Brother Langston asked everyone to stand.
After making a few announcements, he said, as always,
"Let's love the Lord and be dismissed,"
as if the alternative were to love Satan and stick around.
Sister Lou played piano
like a crazed novelist
at a magical typewriter.
She was a first-rate shouter.
When she sang, the Spirit blessed
the church, falling like manna
from heaven, sweet to the tongue.
One Sunday evening, Lou
broke out in the holy cackle.
(She must have been half grackle—
that caw, those shimmers of blue
in her black hair.) Her song,
They that wait upon the Lord
Shall renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings ...,
melted to blissful moaning.
My coat a quilt beneath
the pews, I rubbed the hard
swirls of gum stuck above me
as if caressing nipples,
tuning in wild she-cries.
I closed my dreaming eyes.
Bathsheba came in ripples
to ride me, rev me, love me.
We found cold breakfast under Reynolds Wrap
and sat down in the kitchen by ourselves.
Upstairs, a vacuum's dying fall and then
the ever-louder plunks of Mama's feet.
Eric had smoked kind bud the night before
and left some evidence, an orange package,
in the fifth pocket of his jeans. That morning,
prepping the laundry, she'd discovered it.
She came into the room and slapped that pack
of Zig-Zag rolling papers on the table.
"You got some tall explaining to do, son."
Chewing, he said, "I'm glad you found that thing.
What is it anyway?"
"Don't give me that,"
she said. "You know exactly what it is."
He spread some mayhaw jelly on yellow toast
and said, "I saw it lying in the street
last night at the blues fest and thought it was
a pack of Chinese chewing gum. I picked
it up to take a look and didn't want
to litter, so I stuck it in my pocket."
The lie seemed too smooth in the telling,
too quirky to be anything but the truth.
Or maybe Mama needed to believe.
Months later, she found a box of Eric's ganja
paraphernalia in a dresser drawer.
That day, he smiled and said, "Greg, I get all
the righteous disapproval around here
because my sins're the kind you find in boxes.
But truth be known, you're further gone than I am."
He was right. Next to my apostasies
his beery Friday nights, boys being boys,
would have seemed harmless, almost cute. Those years
he spent flashing a fake ID and guzzling
till he was fucked up like a snake in a lawn mower,
bumbling with bra straps on a grass-stained quilt,
I waded the wild switch cane with Voudou men
and drummed or chanted prayers to Papa Legba.
I tried to learn to shape-shift, mixing roots
with buzzard beaks, graveyard dirt, and wood
from an oak struck leprous with zigzag lightning.
It never worked but Old Man Fullilove,
swear to God, made a deck of playing cards
scatter out of his hands like butterflies
and light on walls, a homemade mobile, and me.
Crawdead taught me the mind within the mind.
Some of the Voudou shacks had cool dirt floors.
My feet loved them and my soul loved the men,
their quiet faces, lamp-lit, sad with history—
those onyx eyes, those cotton crops of hair.
(Under a chinaberry tree in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Ancel Fullilove and I sit on upturned buckets and share a bottle of malt liquor.)
Mr. Fullilove: You hear Crawdead telling 'bout what happened to him down there at Ash Grove Cemetery?
Me: Naw. What happened?
Mr. Fullilove: Crawdead stay right by the graveyard now, you know.
Me: Yeah, his mama told me he moved out there.
Mr. Fullilove: Well, he say he out there in the graveyard one night and heard somebody say, "I better not catch you out here no more." He thought it was some woman flirting. She had a high, soft voice. Said, "Come here, big boy."
Ole Crawdead got happy then. He thought he finna luck out and get him some strange.
Excerpted from Gust by GREG ALAN BROWNDERVILLE Copyright © 2011 by Greg Alan Brownderville. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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