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By James Applewhite
Duke University Press Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
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Chapter One State Road 134 Down N.C. 134 past the township of Troy: places not much in anyone's thoughts, Wadesboro, Mt. Gilead, Calvary Church. One yard spired with the heartening thumb-bells of foxglove. Road going past where the quick dog evaded a truck in the monstrous heat: where a hawk lay dead in a rumple of feathers, a cow stood still under sweet gum scrub and switched its tail. I witnessed the chimney of a house long burnt beside a ditchbank flooded with Cherokee rose. And a field at my random turning laid open and alone, sky's rim back like an eyelid fringed with the clay soil's fledgling pines. Two board shacks with windowpanes crushed by the heat, paint bruised off by a weight of deprivation. What balm of Gilead descends for this mother, baby on the hip of her luminous jeans? In what hollow of mind has even Christ held such features? Face of a black boy vacant almost as the country turning, fields' loneliness sitting on his eyelids too pure almost to be endured in this forgetful distance. My Grandfather's Funeral I knew the dignity of the words: "As for man, his days are as grass, As aflower of the field so he flourisheth; For the wind passeth, and he is gone"- But I was not prepared for the beauty Of the old people coming from the church, Nor for the suddenness with which our slow Procession came again in sight of the awakening Land, as passing white houses, Negroes In clothes the colors of the earth they plowed, We turned, to see bushes and rusting roofs Flicker past one way, the stretch of fields Plowed gray or green with rye flow constant On the other, away to unchanging pines Hovering over parallel boles like Dreams of clouds. At the cemetery the people Surprised me again, walking across The wave of winter-bleached grass and stones Toward his grave; grotesques, yet perfect In their pattern: Wainwright's round head, His bad shoulder hunched and turning That hand inward, Luby Paschal's scrubbed Square face, lips ready to whistle to A puppy, his wife's delicate ankles Angling a foot out, Norwood Whitley Unconsciously rubbing his blue jaw, Locking his knees as if wearing boots; The women's dark blue and brocaded black, Brown stockings on decent legs supporting Their infirm frames carefully over The wintry grass that called them down, Nell Overman moving against the horizon With round hat and drawn-back shoulders- Daring to come and show themselves Above the land, to face the dying Of William Henry Applewhite, Whose name was on the central store He owned no more, who was venerated, Generous, a tyrant to his family With his ally, the God of Moses and lightning (With threat of thunderclouds rising in summer White and ominous over level fields); Who kept bright jars of mineral water On his screened, appled backporch, who prayed With white hair wispy in the moving air, Who kept the old way in changing times, Who killed himself plowing in his garden. I seemed to see him there, above The bleached grass in the new spring light, Bowed to his handplow, bent-kneed, impassive, Toiling in the sacrament of seasons. Driving through a Country America It begins to snow in a country Between the past and what I see, Soft flakes like eyelids softly descending, Closing about branches, orchards of pecans, Like washpot soot streaked in lines on the sky Or is it that these husks empty of nuts Are moving upward among the flakes they have suspended, Like eyesockets gaping or a mockery of birds So that a girl by the name of Mary Alice Taylor Sings across this air from the seventh grade. "Billie he come to see me. Billie he come Last night." A mole, color of clear skin, Swims by her nose. Flakes condense the light. "Billie he asked me to be his wife, 'course I said alright." Snow as if holding the country houses Apart to be inspected, unsilvered Mirror that lets float out of its depths As from an old ocean of no dimension Unlimited objects, leather tack and Spokes of surreys, china Long broken, whittled horses Everything their hands would have touched. The Sunplane Upper Room rusts religiously into the Reader's Digest. Jesus is praying, a light is about his countenance. Catalogues of hardware promote lawnmowers and speedboats. Sunlight circles with specks: yellow for these pages. One whole cluttered story is devoted to the wreckage Of childhood. Chemistry sets, ball bats, wasps' nests. The thread of my labyrinth begins somewhere in there, In the control-line model I never made fly or in the Cleveland Kit of a Stinson Reliant which is still unbuilt. Its plans are clear and full-sized, the scale exact, The balsa twigs still yellow, crumbly, and light. I could build its skeleton still as from a fist full of beams, To rise on the tissue I now know how to shrink taut Toward an early-morning sun. I'd have no hesitation In leaving the house, dew I'd mark with my feet Shows no single step back. The motor is turned By solar batteries of silicon, the most powerful for their weight, That I've ordered from Edmund Scientific. Steadily as sunlight Rises, the Stinson rises, clearing the slender Little trees edging in the ball diamond's outfield (A small enough space to fly models in), leaving below In the past one moody boy with a hand-launch glider, As the Stinson rises reliant on wings of all things I've labored to learn since then, and lay now in offering Before those unsatisfied hours, my forehead brooding In a bramble outfield, whose trees' names I couldn't untangle. O Stinson I build you yet! Rise with the light.
Leaf Mirrors Along a dustless clay road in wet weather, from the wide leaves there radiates a presence of coolness and green, like water. And the field of white weeds, delicate flattened umbrellas or mushroom heads; Queen Anne's lace, so nearly flowers, white sprays of unkempt blossom cocked in numberless angles to one another, strung as if by invisible attraction to the scattered clouds; and those soft-brushed billows seem deeply filamented, potential with rain. Such water-mirroring leaves ineffably unite with clouds in this light deepened by haze, like trees regarding their figures in a pond. The cloud-strung weeds, leaved clouds, shimmering holding a water-depth, connection like consciousness, diminish me shaped into the mosaic foliage, summer that is summer by passing; but mirror my shared life between them, beyond me; suggest.
William Blackburn, Riding Westward Here in this mild, Septembral December, you have died. Leaves from the black oaks litter our campus walks, Where students move, or stand and talk, not knowing Your wisdom's stature, illiterate in the book of your face. So often we walked along the old stone wall at night, Looked up at your window, where lamplight cleft your brow, And knew you were suffering for us the thornier passages, Transfixed by Lear, or staring ahead to the heart Of Conrad's Africa. Sometimes we ventured inside, To be welcomed by an excellent whiskey, Mozart's Requiem. This clarity of music and ice revealed once in air A poem as you read it: as Vaughan created "The World," Eternity's ring shining "calm as it was bright." On a wall was the picture of you riding on a donkey, Caught in mid-pilgrimage, to a holy land I do not remember. But your missionary parents had birthed you in Persia, And after we'd learned that, we saw you as explorer; From hometowns scattered on an American map marked Terra incognita for the heart, you led treks Into our inward countries, and still seem discovering before, Through straits to "the Pacific Sea," or the "Eastern riches." Left on these New World shores - so thoroughly possessed, So waiting to be known - on all sides round we see Great trees felled and lying, their bodies disjoined, Or standing in all weather, broken, invaded by decay. The worn landscape of your features, the shadows Days had cast under eyes, were part of the night That steadily encroaches on the eastward globe, as it rotates In sunlight. Out of your age shone a gleam of youth, Which seems with cedars' searing to sing in the forest In wolf's ears of green flame. Still, you are dead. Your system is subject to entropy. Cells' change Reduced your monarchial features to a kingship of chaos. "With faltering speech, and visage incomposed," You said good night, between pangs of the withering hunger Which filled your dying dreams with apples and cheeses. In spite of the revolt of your closest ally, your body, You died with the nobility you'd taught, and teaching, learned. And now you roam my brain, King Lear after death. The broken girl in your arms is only your spirit, A poor fool hanged by Cordelia, by the straits of fever. We visit your old office on campus in grief. Outside, trees lift winterward branches toward A sky in chaos. The patterning which spins the stars Exists outside this weather we live under. We see only branches against those clouds' inclemency.
Looking for a Home in the South I This particular spring day, March 19, 1973, Is tearing at itself with insanities of traffic. Trucks Of construction components, trucks of concrete, bulk like what is real. I try to look through this particular day as through the doorframe of an abandoned house. Squinting around the foreground, the shoulders of metal, I glimpse Where apple tree boughs in wind strummed washboard clapboard. II Closer home, the tin on barns rusts as with a memory of mules. A few houses cling, through camellias and columns, to an illusion, Whose substance of grace never ruled within a South which existed. But where is this land, which showed to our old ones as an horizon in the future, And now, for us, is secret in the hovering of the past? Was it a sap which awoke from grassroots snapped at plowing? Even now the broken-top trees tap down into a soil below this moment. The juice of it tightens around bulbs, squeezing up jonquils, wild onions. III Off the highway and almost there, tobacco barns and houses are bare to the sky. A sparrow hawk has leaped from the light wire, leaving me balancing In a wind that is chilled between hurt and delight. My great grandfather's stone looks white from his iron-fenced graveyard The color of briars, the fields that he keeps in his watch are combed with new furrows. IV This particular spring day, over which we are constructing despair With materials of depression and concrete, the land we have missed lies hidden- Trickles and glistens in the dark, radiant to roots. Will none of us Live to live into the unalloyed sunshine this land would learn to give us?
Discardings Sometimes going back toward together I find Me with lost, no-count, low-down and lonely: Single with trees in logged-over evening, Sun on us bound to go down. Things lying low are sipped by the weather. Black-strap creeks seem a slow molasses Toward horizons thirsty with gravity. Today in trees I kicked an old bucket Full of woes, the chipped enamel like knotholes. Burrows raised lids under leaves; quick fur Eyes were on my face. Under the trash pile I heard them like trickles of water, Tunneling the sun down. Home, when I pour bourbon and remember A holed rubber boot on a hill of leaves, It must be their sounds I am drinking. I salute a boot from the foot Of an unheralded cavalry. A black man Walked furrows behind a mule whole years, unhorsed By no war but the sun against the moon. I drink branch water and bourbon To the boards of his house that the wind Has turned to its color and taken entirely.
Visit with Artina She lives in a house whose color is bone left out In the weather, over-lap siding gone pallid as wood ash. A sheen condenses out of air on the polished grain. Three little ones, their hair braided up in corn-rows, Flock at her skirts, touch hands to her knees for comfort. She is seventy, rake-handle thin, her shanks are bowed, Her hip is troublesome ("some days I jes can't go"); Peculiar highlights luminesce on her cocoa skin. Her hands are white inside, and shape whatever She says in the air, or touch her three to be good. "That ten dollars a week I used to get-I was study'en on it Yesterday. I raised Joseph, Bernice, Wilma Doris, and theirs, An they didn't never go hungry, we always had more Than cornbread and greens 'a sett'en on the stove" (lives Of collard greens pile high in the room) "I did it, Lord, And now I feel good, jes like the little birds 'a sailing In the air" (her fingers are bones for believable wings). "Back when I worked for your folks-I felt burdened down, Like everybody else was higher." The right hand hovers Over the left, in a different world. "For three years I dreamed This dream, when I got down sick. It was all a dark cloud." One palm wipes the air full of darkness over The plastic flowers, the brown-earth sofa. "And a great crowd Of people. They was troubled, trouble was among 'em. I was to lead 'em, I was among 'em but I was apart. I walked in the middle between 'em but I was far off." Her hands have quarried cloud-pillars from the troubled air. "An so I could get 'em there, he gave me a star." One sure finger, in all the blue spaces of her room, Picks out this point, maybe floating lint or a sungrain Alone, places it, a star, in the middle of her forehead. "An my mother, an my grandmother, what was Mothers in the church; I 'scerned 'em on a hill, a way off." Her palms smooth the air. She makes white robes with her palms. "I 'scerned 'em on a hill." "These were the words that were give me: 'by the grace of God I shall meet you.'" The house of her skin is strangely sheened, Like sky-reflection polishing boards, or color Rain water has caught from the air, in whatever low place.
A Kid at the County Fair Cocoons tasted sweet on cones, potatoes fried, Squeals squeezed out of girls as a Bomber dived. Rita Moreno's lids made slits. Her offer Boiled down to this: we'd eye her tits for a quarter. A sign on a silver trailer where the spotlight's tongue Touched the night told of a girl in an iron lung. We gave to go in. She lay in a metal cylinder Moved at the foot convulsively by a metal lever. Face under shadow, she surrendered herself to its breath That hissed. Outside, I sensed the arc-light spit And erect its column, each particle electric, separate. The motorcycle mounting centrifugally in the "Drum of Death" Turned the fair in a vortex. I stepped to earth, intent On a wound. Air moved coarse between my teeth, Atoms of electricity and grease. I walked from the accident.
Revisitings The sky is low and close and light is a mist. Sunday makes shine a still more sultry water In this summer air. Grass returns prodigal with seed. These birds that perk and skip seem living souls. Magnolia flowers are reminiscent of childhood and candles. Past a line inscribed on leaves by a bobwhite's whistle, I suspect a different self like a nobler brother. Mimosa trees in flower, piles of clouds In an horizon without perspective, help me recall. I sit on the hill of an avenue of trees, feeling That I want to say hush, hush, to the traffic. For a little while I feel close again to a person Who one time existed under immensely tall trees. A wind from where shadows are generating rain tells me This day stands always in pools behind doors I have closed. How have I closed away my best self and all of his memories? Many of the tongues of grass are speaking to the sun, Obscured for a moment, in a language of vapor from underneath.
Excerpted from SELECTED POEMS by James Applewhite Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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