Annie Woodford: Nine Poems from the Convergence of Mountain Chains

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.

Dog Days

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.

 

***

 

Riparian Right

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.

***

Textiles

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.

***

The Waning

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

 

Gram Parsons

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.

***

Philpott Lake

 

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).