Poetry | March 01, 1999

Featuring the following poems:

  • Brilliance
  • A Little Respect


The first time I heard one adult call another a genius,

my father was speaking of a man whose face I don’t recall.

All I have is the memory of an old Black man, climbing

with difficulty the few stairs to the porch of Janney’s store.

A bush of gray hair billowed from under the back of his cap.

I can also see the front of his unpainted house, the worn stoop

and the door not quite straight, a few yards from the edge

of the road. The road has been moved in years since,

and the house made over.

I knew a little about what

the word “genius” meant; I was at the age

of comic books, and had begun to daydream

about the kid with the big head and thick glasses

who always had all the answers.

So what did he mean?


Well, Ed Harrington had come here from southwest Virginia,

the youthful employee of one Robert Gray,

called Colonel Bob, who bought the Glebe in the teens

and ran cattle there that he bought from all over the country.

They would be shipped to him on freight cars, arriving

just on the north side of the Potomac, at Brunswick,

or over in Winchester, across the Shenandoah. Colonel Gray

would drive his buggy to the depot, do paperwork

and take possession, and turn to this young Black man

and say, “All right, Ed. Bring ’em home.” With the help

of a little old dog he actually called “Spot,” he would do it.


In that pause I was trying to think of a way

to make clear the incredible difficulty

with which you or I would have contended

with that simple command. These creatures

knew nothing of where they were. It might be

thirty-five miles by the roads Ed would take,

one man on foot with a small herd of cattle

who would see every lane opening along the road

as the way in to something they wanted. Somehow,

Ed knew what the cattle would think before

they’d had time to think it, and could take

some action.

God knows what.
But in two

or three days he’d arrive, the herd quite intact,

even calm, set free to rove over the Glebe,

the five hundred acres once deeded, in 1773,

to the Shelburne Parish of the Episcopal Church.

Its meadows embanked the North Fork of Goose Creek

a few hundred yards downstream from where

Crooked Runs water drops into it.


Colonel Bob

was a saddle-horse man, kept his horses to the flat,

bred and trained to show in five gaits—walk, trot,

canter, slow gait, and rack. He had the money

and knowledge to start with horses whose natural gifts

were abundant, but still, in that business,

brilliance is a matter of drawing out of the beast

an aura, a sense that the horse willingly restrains

coiled-spring energy enough to fly, or even explode,

of bit, buckle, and stirrup agleam. Colonel Gray

had what it took, and he knew it. There was the time

he walked off with some championship or other,

and his nearest competitor, second to him all day,

said something sour about having the judge in your pocket,

and Colonel Gray stopped, turned, and stood before him

like a man about to fling down his glove and say

coldly, “My seconds will be attending upon you, sir.”

But in fact said only, “If you doubt, sir,

that the judge knows his business, take my horse

into the ring, while I ride yours. For five hundred dollars,

sir, I’ll beat you again.” Nothing doing, of course;

the story ends there, or goes bad.


Ed Harrington,

meanwhile, squired over the vicinity the Colonel’s

stud horse, Lincoln Chief, available for a reasonable fee

to impregnate local mares, and so in time came

himself to be known as Chief. And in time, too, tried

his skills elsewhere, left Gray’s employ and went to work

for my great-uncle W. T. Smith, dairy farmer.

In the sphere of common farm labor, Ed was known

as a poor judge of the strength of materials.

In his care tug straps, trace chains, the handles of pitchforks,

to say nothing of more delicate mechanisms,

simply came apart, and gradually his labors

were chosen accordingly, though a colleague once said

that one day, having broken every piece of the harness

involved in dragging a log to the sawmill, Ed turned

in frustration and just up and busted that saw-log.

Yet Uncle Will managed to be pleased with his work,

and so a year passed, and one day Colonel Bob

came in the lane at a rack on his saddle horse, drew up,

and said, “Willie, Ed tells me he wants to come home.”

“Well, Colonel, he’s been a good hand, and I’ll miss him,

but I don’t see how I can stand in his way.”

“Very well, and I thank you. He was all right, was he?”

“Oh, yes, just fine. Knows his cows, that’s certain.”

“Yes. Hm. Tell me this. Did he break up much stuff?”

“Oh, a little, at first. Here lately, I’ve had him at work

with a double-shovel plow. Not much damage to be done there.”

In agreement Colonel Gray and Uncle Will laughed, but Tom Chinn,

who had stood by not speaking, now said, “Uh, Boss,

I reckon you better go round there and look at that plow.”


A Little Respect

From the farm next door, long after midnight, there came

one dark morning last year the bray of a jackass, a sound

I had not heard for years; by now it is nearly as much

a part of the air around me as the sound of my own breathing,

but that first note set me off, down the hill and across

the meadow and up the road, then one farm north,

where old Foster was still working when I was a boy.

He assembled for haying a crew young and old, Black and white,

in an era when some men might have sent separate

and possibly equal water cans to the field, but Foster

had one can, one dipper, with which each man took his turn,

swirling the last swallow, not taken, into a jeweled

arc as he passed the dipper on and let out a breath

through his cooled throat like a velvet shout, and turned to work.


Down toward the edge of the bottom, then back into the hill,

two-thirds of the load on already, and the mules balked.

It is a term rarely used in connection with horses,

for instance, whose methods of subverting human wishes

might be called stopping, quitting, refusing, or pulling back.

They shift about, under duress, to avoid moving on.

Mules balk. They put all four hoofs in touch with a force

below the earth’s surface, and enter into a state

of patient remoteness not unlike prayer, or trance;

their apparent indifference to shouts, jerks, and blows

can lead their oppressors to an unexamined belief

that what they are doing is no more cruel than beating a rug.


So with Foster and his men. As usual, they tired first,

stepped back to take breath and wipe brow, and the air

settled, in nearly noon sunlight, toward perfect stillness,

a transparency dense enough to suspend a fleck of chaff

or the odd wisp of hay, drooping weightlessly from the load

like a fern in a glass paperweight. Decreasingly labored

the sound of their breathing, and abrupt the halted buzz

of a fly landing somewhere. On the off side, the slight creak

of a strap under strain.


A boy spoke. Just a kid, a ward

of the county, sent out to this farm to be learning to work.

“Let me try,” he said, and these grown white men looked down

on this half-grown Black boy, then back at the team,

whose roots in the field were perceptibly deepening.

“What the hell,” one of the men said, “he can’t do no worse

than we done.” So Foster stepped toward him, held out the lines.

The boy took them, made them right in his hands, stood

just to the near side of the rear of the team, and spoke

to the blindered heads. “Come up there, Mr. Mule.”

First stillness, then a calm, slow lean into the collars,

a hoof lifted, and another, and they walked off

up the windrow as if bound for their hearts’ desire.

The boy glanced back as he walked with them, and grinned.

“Call ’em Mister. It help sometime to talk to mules that way.”

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