Poetry | June 01, 2002
Poetry Feature: Rebecca Black
Featuring the poems:
- Hiding the Silver
- Stomp Dancing
- Bartram Among the Seminoles
- Bartram’s Ghost
Whitney forged Revolutionary nails
and hat pins, then muskets with changeable parts
when his gin patent was delayed.
Competitors arsoned his barn, stole
his plans. Still he wrote: “One man and a horse
will do more than fifty men without
throwing any class of People out
of business.” Thereafter, at the cotton mills upriver
which my ancestors oversaw,
counterfeit machines pressed
cotton into bales shipped to England. Seeds
moldered beside a great pyramid
of lint. Before the gin, a slave’s shoe-
full was a winter night’s work. Afterwards,
gin wheels churned like Ezekiel’s
and the night miller hummed
a sorrow song. “So the thirty thousand Negroes
of Georgia in 1790 were doubled
in a decade, were over a hundred
thousand in 1810, had reached two hundred
thousand in 1820, and half
a million at the time of the war,” wrote Du Bois.
This capital of Cotton built on our backs.
Dear Jesus, deliver us from the Egypt of the South.
Hiding the Silver
After my mother served coffee
from her reproduction Chippendale
seat, the silver service was deposited
in the sideboard with a tassled
key, or hidden in the bathtub
if we left town for a week.
This meat fork from the Colliers,
a chest of hollowware from the Kings.
Our ancestors conjured by their ritual
tools, as if we’d always know what
to do. But my brother bent
the bone-handled knife prying open
a jelly lid, and I floated
camellias in the gravy boat.
Silver from families with no daughters
was plundered–a woman got hold
of Uncle Collier before he died
and pawned Aunt’s dowry.
(She’d had no memory for years.)
We found the empty chest,
its red velvet crumbled
like dried blood in my hands.
At school, white girls wore
bracelets of silver spoons. Their wrists
blacked with tarnish, the metal
almost issued from their veins
as they collected toy trucks
and marbles for the Charity League’s
I read alone during lunch each day:
the moon and silver equal charity.
If I shined and polished
the silver service, my mother said,
my face convex in the sugar
bowl, working a rag over
the cream pitcher, cold water
beading the sheen, my fingers
aching a sooty blue, I could give
it away when I died. She wanted
me to earn the past, her things.
But I worked in the kitchen to hear
my grandmother’s stories:
Pearl’s mother would be damned
if she’d surrender a twenty-dollar piece
to the Yankee soldiers who comandeered
She hid the gold
in her mouth and gave the unbroken
pony back to the waxing moon, saying
“If you can catch it, it’s yours.”
My mother wore the collared, pearl-buttoned blouse
for teaching. After Caesar reached the Rubicon, alea
jacta est, she’d turn to the mysteries of Demeter’s sorrow.
The blouse, stained with the last of a scent called Joy,
went to Ruby, into the smoke and Schlitz
of a Calhoun juke joint where she was keyboards
Saturday night. She’d left the sewing factories to raise
her nephew in the country. She could write, but I
only saw her chalk requests for more Ajax, or pick out
a melody on our soured piano. She didn’t sing. Once
I left out pennies for her, but she dusted over the pile.
A thousand Lincolns wouldn’t change a goddamned
thing. When we drove twenty miles to visit – she
was sick – we took my mother’s old curtains made
from bolts of blue colonial chintz. I didn’t know
anything. We never spoke of more than how she took
coffee “black and sweet.” Ruby knew our secrets –
how the girl bloodied sheets in her sleep, how to hold
the mother after the dose of L-dopa. When I heard
Ruby turn the key in the lock, I’d huddle with a book
in bed until she called me to help with the towels,
to tear my father’s threadbare oxfords into rags.
Summers at Chehaw Park, Cherokees
returned from western reservations
for a festival. I’d watch the stomp dance
with my brother from the bleachers,
the beer company’s Clydesdale parade.
What change would dancing bring?
We bought turquoise rings, authentic
hachets, a T-shirt that read Trail
of Tears, while ants worked candy wrappers
and cola tabs into a mound, and the lone
buffalo at the zoo died of mange.
Our house tomb-quiet until I stomped in
past curfew, jammed out to the Wailers,
scripting silly thrillers with my Black
Warrior pencil. On weekends we’d argue
over the stereo: Dad’s tapes of native
chants, opera dubbed on the other side,
or my redemption songs. One summer
Choctaws raided the diorama at Kolomoki
for their ancestors’ bodies. They descended –
gods from the machine – to load boxes
of bones into a Winnebago airbrushed
with eagle wings. I stood very still
in lipstick and stirrup jeans next to the wax
figures of squaw and brave
and the archaeologists, who seemed
stunned at the dismantling. The opposite
of a ceremony. Working together,
my dad whispered, each man might
bear the dead weight of ten.
Bartram Among the Seminoles
The naturalist William Bartram traveled through south Georgia in 1775.
Men sit in the hot house until stacked
spirals of cane burn back into carbon–
they know the time when nothing’s left
to tell it by. There are drawings of men
with the heads of turkey and bear,
and drawings of animals with the heads
of men. In the granary, a mouse sleeps
in the jaws of a rattlesnake,
it has been so charmed. Bartram’s clearly lost,
dreaming on pine needles
where the swamp turns into a stream.
I think he crossed the River Flint
where magnolia leaves stiff as parchment
fall to asphalt in a small town I’ve come
to consider cursed, though I am not prone
to superstition, only the occasional lapse
into reason or sly embellishment.
Where city fathers drained municipal pools
so the races would not commingle,
the townspeople prayerful and ignorant.
And the most peaceable creatures
are flayed, each in its own season.
The hunting camp’s gambrel hook swings empty
like a new letter in the alphabet, a character
in a gothic syllabary. In the creek
beside the camp of red-necked augurs,
my father’s seen crawfish big as lobsters
feeding on guts. If anything keeps us
from spinning into chaos it’s the swamp
De Soto called “Toa” as he slunk through
in the 1550s. Mud can cure entropy–
I’ve plastered it on my chest and risen up
gargantuan from the pits. Once a rattlesnake
stretched clear across the road,
and I felt the tire-thump over its belly
in my own tailbone. The snake kept going
into the cane. Better not to have bones
if you’re in danger of being crushed.
Better to stay low and cultivate a presence.
The last time I was home there was a drought,
and really no reason for Oglethorpe Bridge,
so I drove back from where I’d come,
towards the smell of burning grass
in the new developments, where recent immigrants
rake embers on a lawn, paint melting
off the tines. From one window
there’s a dry lake, and my father sits
with his back to the scene, his fingers gnarled
into flower buds by a stroke. My description
is half hope, half irony. Bartram knew
that naming was a misguided enterprise.
No one’s sure where he was during 1774.
Likewise, this is an undocumented time.
The hornbeam is one long nerve between worlds.
If Bartram didn’t sleep in the woods
near my home what does it matter? No one told
the natives their enemy De Soto was dead,
his body loaded with sand and sunk
into the Mississippi, the “sire of many rivers.”
You’re invited anyway to fathom the publications
of this stream, the many lost volumes of mud
it took to call this land, “riverine.”
After Bartram crossed the flooding
Flint, he had to go on alone.
His rations were low during July 1775.
Though his hand shook with hunger,
he took great care to draw a crane
he’d never seen before. In this way we depict
what we devour and dream of our fathers.
The mouse writhes in the belly of fire.
Bartram was starving and took the bird’s
roasted flesh to his own, his hands
black with ink or ash–who’s left to tell?
The skies, they are beaten back,
Bartram the younger snagged in the briers
swarmed by gnats he’s termed Ephemera,
with hope. Yucca veins the borrow pits
(“borrow” a corruption of barrow)
like the tongue’s other side.
While he dozes under the hornbeam,
chokeberry pulp tissued firm as the heart
stains his ankles and knees.
The tail of the glass snake splinters
by a gentle stroke from a slender switch,
and another generates
as a word gone over and over
in the mind, tenetke, meaning thunder,
ruptures into letter. The next morning
he finds a downed roebuck.
The hunter appears, an Indian agent
who barters on the invisible, also
gunpowder and skins. Bartram
knows Creek, the patois for “stream.”
They share a draught
of sassafrass tea, venison and honey.
Under the jasmine, beyond the canebrake,
a settlement of Pleasure.
I’ve built a fort from the alphabet,
its scattered letters. The bulleted chamber
of the -ologists is locked, combination and chain
droop across dirt hard packed and rutted
since the last storm.
The borrow pit sleeps in blue tarp.
The hornbeam blurs into a stand
of planted pine, two hundred years.
Description makes the world
The mind conjures a field of feeding deer,
the sound of a stream
running through dagger palms,
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