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

From A Field Guide to Etowah County

Bluets, larkspur, common violets in the jimson
and queen-anne's-lace, tangles of boxwood
and honeysuckle and smilax in hydrangea and pine,
thick from which Spring Azures drift,
among the first to emerge, the Swallowtails'
gunmetal iridescence, obsidian-with-stars
wings turning like pages in hands of wind.
Thrashers tear in the leaves for earthworms,
salamanders, some morsel, their stipple
of sunlight-in-leaves blending then reappearing
in a crash of meal. If a snake uncurls,
the bird will leaf it in bibles of territory, protection,
and someone's aunt or grandmother, passing,
will slow to note that summer is on us early.
But this one merely stands, its wing in a ray,
feathers a concrete mottle of grain and pebble
like a roadside table turned into brush long ago.
Here, there is no cankered plum or split persimmon,
sap or juice to bead, mimeograph bright,
on the grass's nibs, and the grass does not whorl
in cursives of moonlight and dark each night,
but this is where they found that postman
from Baltimore, walking his integration letter
to Ross Barnett, three hundred miles to go,
shot in his head and neck, copies of the protest
scattered and streaking in the April dew.
It was September, honeysuckle in full perfume,
the woods a riot of grackles and jays,
when the grand jury broke and let the suspect go.
The facts are simple, my grandfather said,
the D.A. said we couldn't make a case,
so the words they never wrote coiled
in field reports and requisitions, and three days later
a church-bomb in Birmingham
blew the stained-glass face of Christ
like a dandelion head in the roadside weeds.
Snakeroot, aster, and blazing star, some
toxic to cows, should not be eaten, though many take
the greens and fruit of poke, more abundant
in Spring, as correctives, small poisons
to set things right. Goldenrod blazes the highway's
shoulders, all the way to Birmingham
or Chattanooga, and starlings gather
like glass, like grackles in the trees, such
sociability an advance of colder weather.
The Swallowtails and Azures have disappeared,
but you may spot the Great Purple Hairstreak
bumbling, slow and easy to observe,
even in the clouds of goldenrod that dust
when they land. The cones are brilliant
but delicate as their gossamer wings. Touch,
and the color's written in your skin.

 

Published in Murder Ballads (2005).
Text may vary slightly from the video reading.

Published: 1 April 2008
© 2008 Jake Adam York and Southern Spaces