Ode to Percy
Shelby Stephenson

O snuff-dribbler, mumbler, stench-bearer’s being,
From the loins of slaves you spring now, alive,
Out of the back part of the cemetery’s oldfield,

Yellow, and black, and brown, and pale, and white,
Miscegenation’s multitudes:  for today
You change your urine-warped, stained clothes and dive −

You become the athlete −  in work-out clothes,
Standing tall with your sling-blade and your hoe,
To act, persevere; listen, oh brother:

You never had a chance to be more
Than the slow tobacco-primer:  we pondered:
Iron-weeds cutter, cotton-chopper, adorer

Of moonshine whiskey (too much) –  no wonder:
Tenant-fire keeper on hearths no longer.

My father never looked hard for promotion,
Beyond hired hand, that image, your mirage,
Shuffling like a slave-ship in an ocean,

Seagulls circling to set your ancestors
At Jamestown, inland, Stephenson, Virginia,
Down coast to descend a family large

With motto:  Work, for the night is coming;
So hoist that bale, pail, for the sufferer
Whose life dissolves in Heaven’s cantina,

Of gardens rare with solid sepulchers,
The prize for slaving hard for Someone Else,
Neglecting your family’s atmosphere,

Giving all yourself to tobacco trucks,
History’s medicine, Time’s Big Deluxe.

You who slung down the weeds and primed the lugs
In truck-rows and middles under the sun,
Then went home to my father’s place, drank slugs

Of rot-gut shine made in a still in some
Wood-patch nearby − my father’s boyhood streams
Quivering with minnows, mimosa, hum

Ruby-Throats sang with their wings the refrains
Grandpa William preached at Rehobeth Church
And dwelled and swung the pulpit with remains −

Squire Percy, my Sancho Panza, could make
Me get over how I might strip vision
For a past I could not prevent – I take

It now, like medicine and wait, lessons
For perpetuity’s invitation.


If I were more than a freckled-faced tot,
Back in the Fifties of Elvis, Chuck, Hank,
A flourish of fiddles and steels my lot,

I might find stronger exchanges to thank
You and your family down to now for
Being done wrong, then laid low in a bank

Of graveyards, above-ground secrets no more
Hush-hush than my neighbor walking his dog.
Truth is, everyone philosophizes lore

We cannot change – or won’t – until Time’s log
Fills out its own account in tainted chores.
We cannot be ashamed to go and beg

All people to wake up the past and hear
The cries of sufferers’ long, streaming tear.


Make me your hum, complete, as your gait is:
Our deaths do not awaken anyone’s own!
The burden of the South’s varied histories

Shall quake on in a wide October tone,
Month of my father’s birth – a life’s spirit.
Hear!  Bring me to yourself, Evasive One!

Craft my feelings and thoughts into lyrics
With voices, melodies, for fresh, new breath;
By singing of angels lost from Eden,

Set season after season on one hearth
Everyone can love, lure from cragged ledges
Others who shall see the light, here, on earth,

Where love’s best, certainly, with raw edges
Sharp for awakening human wages.

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