An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections
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  • Darkly

    for Dave Smith

    The moss never falls.
    However gray,

    it hangs like shirts
    left to weather and rag

    over the road
    and the dead-end rail

    and in all the branches
    from there to the shore

    and then as far upriver
    as you can see.

    Here it's only open water,
    empty sky,

    two ends of road no one uses,
    landfill on one side, thicket

    on the other,
    the story of a bridge between.

    Below, the water's huddled,
    cold and silver.

    It won't show a thing.
    So I look for that place in the air

    where they held a gun
    on Willie Edwards

    and told him he could jump.
    How you'd ask me —

    Why? so simple
    it won't tell a thing —

    how'd they get there,
    Edwards in their hands,

    along the roads so many others took
    to church or to the movies

    or home
    along the same white lines?

    To condemn is easy, you said,
    to condemn is to turn away

    where no one will ever understand.
    So, I go back, downtown,

    to Jefferson Street, though
    their haven, their Little Kitchen's gone.

    I can cruise, can walk
    and search each pane of glass

    for that wave of heat,
    the echo

    that will fill the night
    fifty years gone

    when five men bent
    in the diner's greasy light —

    as Mongtomery darkened
    beyond the window,

    each bus offering its insult
    or imagined slight —

    and planned to kill a man
    they'd never seen.

    I can walk their streets,
    though no one walks here anymore,

    until I catch that curve
    in a window or a windshield

    that wrecks my face
    so for a moment

    I can mistake myself
    for the redneck at the end of a joke.

    Every map is open but a man,
    and you can turn away

    before you see how it's drawn,
    or arrive too late

    and miss that moment
    when he sees himself as his language does,

    when every other face
    becomes the glass but his own.

    Maybe the streetlamps remember the light,
    gelid and thin as bacon fat,

    as the vowel in your mouth
    that just won't break,

    a door I can walk through,
    a room where I can sit beside them

    hardly out of place,
    then watch them rise and part

    the city's yellow crape of light,
    and then a door I can open

    to follow through the warehouse streets
    to the city's fence

    with a memory
    only half my own.

    I know these nights.
    The sky is ash

    and if you wait too long
    your bones sing in your fingers,

    cold as galvanized wire.
    The rest of the way

    comes from somewhere else.
    There are many ways to get there

    and then the one
    I can't understand:

    already,
    maybe always being there.

    Maybe they were born
    into that vacant sky

    and they were always there,
    ready to force a choice

    so they wouldn't have to
    make one,

    waiting for someone else
    to write their names in air or water.

    They never arrived,
    so it didn't matter

    they'd grabbed the wrong man,
    wouldn't have mattered

    if they'd found the one
    they were looking for.

    They'd still disappear,
    like the bridge,

    and be forgotten by the water.
    They'd still come,

    each one, to that morning
    at the end of everything

    when they'd look back
    on the healing water

    and say
    My life hasn't meant a thing.

    Some things are beyond us.

    The moss never falls.
    The river won't say a thing.

    I lean, clouding
    its reflected night.

    And now I can't tell you
    how I got here

    or what I'd hoped to see,
    what face would rise

    if light swept from the channel
    or the opposite shore.

    The sky is empty,
    and the river's bent

    like a question too close
    or too far away to read.

    "Darkly" first appeared in The Southern Review and will appear in Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, forthcoming).

    Published: 15 April 2010
    © 2010 Jake Adam York and Southern Spaces