I am from Southside Virginia, where Virginia and North Carolina meet in a red dirt tangle of back roads and Bright Leaf tobacco. I now live and teach in Roanoke, Virginia. My poetry is informed by these geographies.
The North Carolina banjo revolutionary Charlie Poole, who lived near where I grew up, is one of my heroes. I would like to think my poetry is written in the same spirit as his music—high flying, heartfelt, and full of lyrical vinegar.
By July the mountains are adorned.
The chestnut oak’s supple leaves,
leather-green, flap before the rain.
The red-bud’s full bush, poison-ivy
wet with itch climbing half-way up
a sweet gum trunk, scrawny walnut
saplings scaffolding a hillside—
these are the layers that burgeon,
blessing us with sap and shadows,
cool chancels we can step into if
we wear boots: copperheads
and rattlesnakes, blinded by old skin,
blend right in with last year’s leaves.
You have to watch where you step.
Back before they dredged it for its yellow sand,
the Little Otter River ran over rocks long
and thin as ribs. My daddy and his daddy
stepped on them and so did I in my turn, the sky
sliding around our ankles, heaven shredded
by busy water. At night, catfish pondered
in starry pools, the overhanging bank tangled
with tree roots where the river ate it away.
We would sit in the summer dark, the water
a whisper before us. Clumps of sand plopped
into the river drew fish, but only if done once.
Otherwise, we had to be still and wait
in blackness, the water talking all around us.
Scrap Aluminum Gets Thirty-Eight Cents a Pound
They have a can-crusher, Marion begged,
wanting to cross our busy street, go play
with the neighbor kids, brother and sister,
the intersection between us dusty
with the industry of this part of the city,
the blown-by trash of passersby who walk
or drive all too often with blasted eyes.
When I come over there, all three of them
are grinning, slapping cans in, pulling the handle
of the crusher mounted on a two-by-four.
One worn-out dogwood graces the yard.
The children have climbed its bark off,
but there it is, at its bride-white best,
scant branches, blossoms shot with sun.
The mother slurs her speech, her teeth
gone from poverty or something else,
though she has the brow and bone of beauty.
The children are so happy to crush
those cans, spring coming on no matter
what, the interstate one block away
breathing like a beast behind us.
Dry this dying body with a towel Mama saved
From the last of the Southeastern textile mills.
My uncle was a fixer who kept the shuttles slapping,
Kept the family in Royal Velvet remainders—
Pattern Alhambra, Venetian Roses worn thin
By the years, edges frayed, soon to disappear—
A rag to wash the car, a scrap recognized only
By a few old women like I am becoming.
The looms were dismantled and sold to China,
The smokestack, spelling Fieldcrest, knocked
Down, the company garden plots once
Quilting the bottom with corn and half-runners
Now tangled with clover and crab grass.
I will never be able to afford such towels.
Castle Hayne Aquifer
In the ardor of the marsh,
my heart hums with the frogs.
The house lifts with whirring wings.
I drift on all my old desires, my dead
and my dying holding me to earth,
delving soul diving deep in the mud,
strata of snap turtle and broken shells,
stink of wire grass disintegrating,
mother-crab packed with orange eggs
sucking bubbles and stray flesh
as the tide recedes, down
to where the aquifer slaps
under Pamlico Sound,
all that weight
of August water,
nearly hot, lapping on top,
water to water separated by spunk
and bedrock, the red drum nudging
the bottom from above.
In South Carolina
We vacation with our ghosts,
the hush of the vast Atlantic
filling in the gaps between
our hopes. Our children
burn bare feet on asphalt and sand
while, horizon-wise, planes pull
happy banners up and down the Grand Strand.
The ice cream man’s digital calliope
plays God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
Compressors kick on and off.
We cousins keeling past middle age,
my three widowed aunts, remember
when there were more men
to fill the temporary couches
and houses of this week at Myrtle Beach.
We once had uncles, brothers, and husbands.
We once had fathers
to eat the food,
drink the bourbon,
and light Roman Candles with lit cigarettes.
Hunting the Cedar
Faint light shakes
the tree line, suddenly
bare after fall’s long glory.
Christmas ghosts crowd the car.
To our left, the Peaks keep glacial pace.
At the old land, the sky unfurls over us,
clouds opening like hands. I follow
my child into thickets uncut since
Granddad’s days in the dying eighties.
The cedars hold hidden birds, wings
rustling like memories, shadows
throbbed by their call. Their needles
have sifted down, bronze and dry,
for twenty-seven years. The ground
under them will be soft.
It will quiet our steps.
Is 280 feet deep at the dam.
We used to sway on the surface
in Dad’s bass boat, glitter pressed
into its fiber glass, live well sloshing,
depth-finder pinging the ragged bottom.
Walleye and striper would sometimes pass
under our rocking hull—black shapes
made of sonic waves.
Diving down deep as I dared,
I’d shoot back up when the cold hit me,
floating in green-gold galaxies
of pollen and mica, swimming away
from the marbled sheen of gas
leaking from the rebuilt Mercury.
Toes curled, having been told
an old woman left when the lake
was filled would grab my foot,
I dangled in a watery sky.
Aunt Lorene says those hollows
were filled with stills and snakes.
The trolling motor buzzed like a rattler
when I listened underwater.
Bassett doesn’t flood anymore.
A Wardrobe is Like a Woman
Both are fitted together with movable parts.
A woman has hips that can shift
to accommodate a baby, a man,
bones rolling in their sockets,
tendons bowing to the oldest song.
Built to be deconstructed, wardrobes
were meant to be packed in wagons
and rolled through fields of blowing clover,
jolted down streets muddy with cow dung.
The dowels would grow loose
in their holes as the years passed.
The whole structure would sag
in its assigned corner, leaning tipsily,
shaking each time Grandma hung her dress.
With luck, a carpenter would come along
who knew how to tighten it anew,
bracing the back panels with fresh boards
and re-gluing all the wobbly joints.
Solid, it could still come apart in a trice,
its doors unhinged and wrapped in quilts,
the base eased from the bottom
and all the spider eggs swept from its crown—
to be put back together again and again
(as long as its parts weren’t scattered to the wind).