Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine
Dry summer and the upper field quiet at noon.
Spring’s green pirouette tangled in barbed wire,
Its promise snapped like matchsticks, burnt-orange
Pine needles cracking loose from stiff joints,
Silence dropped so low
It rings like a bell’s soft echo.
Here once was a boy running with a black and white half shepherd dog,
Hair summer-blonde, hands darkened to rust by wet clay
Rummaged for arrowheads.
No fear then but the darting tongues of timber snakes:
That certainty lost to whatever passes for time,
The ground skipped beneath his feet.
* * *
Once I stood here through a mid-day snowfall, sky staring and nearly dark,
Watching my shoes sink in the white sheets,
Petals of frozen clouds feathering down through my eyelashes.
Home from college, free of abnormal psychology
And media arts, endless boredoms that passed for a life of the mind.
Not a sound that whole afternoon, nothing more alive than my breath,
Silence in the snowy field, the heavy trees,
Known in sense but not by name, nothing really known by name.
* * *
No one came here to build the perfect city.
They came out of Philadelphia and before that New York,
Before that Baden-Baden and the Palatinate.
A narrow river unspooled out of the mountains, Alamance County,
Western Carolina, and washed them up
Before what must have seemed God’s own promise:
Tall fescue and cleft hoofprints of deer on the muddy banks.
Here they could harvest what grew, tear life out of the ground.
They started with trees, built a lumber-mill and floated log-rafts downriver
To settlements in Rockwood, Oliver Springs, and Chattanooga—
Already the name had been lightened to Graves, and only old Johannes,
Born 1703 in the Rhineland, still called himself Graff.
* * *
Left alone, indoors, I tend toward sounds not found
In the open field, Sotto voce of Mahler’s Misterioso Symphony,
Surge and retreat of John Coltrane’s Crescent.
No analogue in nature, no precedent in the high branches.
One night in Faubourg Marigny I heard Kidd Jordan ignite the air
With a tenor saxophone.
It sounded like ashes falling, each speck a thousand pounds.
* * *
Life abounds on the perimeter, overflushes the fencerows
Most years, honeysuckle lacing the cedar posts,
But now the heat beats its odd rhythms and the billion tiny teeth
Of the blight work through this zone and the next,
Leaving orange skeletons standing over variegated shadows.
Chestnuts once shouldered this ridgeline, owned the horizons
From Sharps Chapel to Jellico Mountain, on past the blue smudge
Of Clinch Mountain to the east.
Impossible to picture it today, three generations after aphids cut through them—
Floorboards and ceiling joists, finely-grained paneling
In the old houses the only proof that an existence once so sturdy could vanish
Like clouds into clouds.
* * *
So many years ago a man toiled here, clearing and reaping the barest life.
How many years?
The years themselves do not know, do not count turns
In their circle.
Before Lincoln, before Darwin, before Marx.
One of his sons killed in the field by an Indian.
An X by “His Mark” on the deed. An X by “His Wife’s Mark.”
The words Jesse Graves quilled below it in the practiced hand of a magistrate.
* * *
The dead move through us at their will, their voices chime just out of our hearing.
How else do we feel our names when no one speaks them?
How else catch the echo of footprints two decades after running through the grass?
Alone in the field, and never alone. Quiet and not quiet.
Home and away.
Originally appeared in The Southern Quarterly
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