Poetry | June 01, 2002

Featuring the poems:

  • 1790
  • Hiding the Silver
  • Hand-Me-Downs
  • 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

Christmas stockings.

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

her farm.

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.


Stop Dancing

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?


Bartram’s Ghost

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,

pure supposition.

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