Poetry | March 01, 1999
Poetry Feature: Henry Taylor
Featuring the following poems:
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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