My post-Christmas card is so fat it needs a table of contents. Besides the card, a page of superlatives, and a page of pics, I've been including a five-page poem! Absurd. I've decided to lighten the snail mail load by posting the five-page poem here instead. The poem is a revision of the occasional verse I wrote for the 50th reunion of Northside High this past spring. I've used it as the final poem in a compilation for a chapbook of poems I'm calling BEAUTY AND DISTANCE. (Know any publishers who'd like to publish it??)
And it was this that awed him—the weird combination of fixity and change, the terrible moment of immobility stamped with eternity in which passing life at great speed, both the observer and the observed seem frozen in time. There was one moment of timeless suspension when the land did not move, the train did not move, the slattern in the doorway did not move, he did not move. It was as if God had lifted his baton sharply above the endless orchestration of the seas, and the eternal moment had stopped, suspended in the timeless architecture of the absolute.
On the brink of the dark he stood, with only the dream of the cities, the million books, the spectral images of the people he had loved, who had loved him, whom he had known and lost. They will not come again. They never will come back again.
Look Homeward, Angel
Going Home: 176 Days
on the occasion of the 50th reunion of the Class of 1960, May 15, 2010
Our time spent with W. C. Stamps
that first year learning to drive
could have lasted like ambergris
shut up in a book for fifty years,
fixative for perfume, fecal marine-like
scent sanitized to alcohol cleanness.
We simply craved the open road.
The Drivers’ Ed class at Northside High
was far north of the salt line and the sea;
its pervasive smell was parched peanuts
packed into Mr. Stamps’ front pockets,
inciting four girls an hour to practice
a skill the boys had learned plowing,
and the more adroit girls, by some means.
With new licenses steaming in wallets,
a smattering of rising seniors from Gorgas,
and a fistful from Montgomery jostled
on separate buses across the county
to be greeted that fall of ‘59 with red clay;
barefoot, we salvaged our socks and shoes,
rinsing our feet inside in shiny-white sinks
scrubbed by my brother, custodian
of the rainbow of gladiolas, his annual garden
border. Our class chose red as its favorite.
Educated apart in two warm white wooden
structures, fifty seniors posed together in lines
for the picture, each one stretching to find
a safe corner inside new cold brick walls.
Their old schools were the age of the Brownville
Community Building where Methodist and Baptist
alternated Sundays, except for weddings and funerals.
Daddy didn’t miss a Sunday and Mama, only a few.
So for my wedding the crowd was mixed. It’s gone, too—
abandoned, burned to the ground, the last sentinel
of a once-idyllic village of creosoted homes, rotted down.
That August day its two stories were illumined
in the wavy heat of dog days; Mama wore blue eyelet
that matched both her eyes and Daddy’s. His long
stride moved me right along down the aisle,
a farmer’s tan above his unnatural collar and tie.
He raised his more natural hand, nodding
to the crowd, to Chappy Pate, who waved back.
Daddy complained about worldly ballgames
the way we girls did our p.e. bloomers,
bloused blue cotton, as hard to swallow
as the concept of so much newness:
new alma mater, new mascot, new colors
new flower, new officers, new song?
Oh, if we could only find our song leader.
Janie might have chosen
Down in the Valley
or Barbara Allen
the tunes she’d led
in elementary school
after the daily Bible recitation
and the pledge of allegiance.
Not a one of us knew by heart
the words of The Bells of St. Mary’s
by Bing Crosby; Ma and Pa Kettle
were our only movies. Rowdy Yates
had replaced Lash LaRue. The Bells
we would come to know was about
saving a Catholic school from shut-down.
Our churches—Phillips Chapel, Friendship, El Bethel, Nazareth,
Haygood, Tabernacle, Concord, Mt. Hebron, Mt. Zion, Campground,
and Arbor, Sand, and Sulphur Springs—
had no bells, just Amazing Grace and Blessed Assurance.
The Bells smacks of an inspired faculty member’s
choice for us, a stab to cushion our transition,
a subplot for our own unique story.
Janie, Ludie, Mr. Stamps, and I white-knuckled
the graveled road past Binion Creek and the curves
leading to Mormon Road, past Friendship Baptist
where I walked two miles to summer singing school,
keeping time and mouthing shaped notes, Fa Sol La.
We shelled and munched peanuts as we cruised
past the Dobbs house, my spot to catch the bus.
At the end of the lesson, we could eat a hot lunch
in the lunchroom if we had a whole quarter to spare.
Afternoons I got off the bus under the water oaks
to walk the quarter mile back home, the James Hewitt
place. ‘Croppers, we thinned corn, chopped cotton,
pulled corn, canned corn, shelled corn, picked cotton—
our corn and cotton lives were larded
with ripe watermelons burst open
in the middles to reveal juicy hearts;
with the taste of Alberta peaches
as fresh as the smell of bleached sheets
dried on a clothesline, as tasty
as pork sausage fried in the iron skillet,
seasoned with fresh garden sage:
as we sped along, green bled by and we forgot
the blood and organs spilling from the gutted
hog hanging from the limb for butchering;
we forgot that raw stench
and the smoke burning our eyes
as we stirred the black pot of cracklin’s
to render the fat for the winter
or cooking hominy
in that same iron pot
with the ashes from the fireplace;
we could forget stepping on nails—
or in my case a horse harness buckle,
forget our mamas running to get a rag,
soaking it from the kerosene can—
ah, but we would never erase that nurture,
so we have driven back after fifty years.
We let old voices and faces exude
as the wind whispers on our faces
as we roll along in our cars
you will not remember them
they will not remember you
as it did the night Doris and I
pushed the car out of her driveway,
to drive me home—
you should not do this
you should not do this
whispers we ignored.
Home—this one down the hill, past the commissary
across the tracks near the Quarters. Then Betty Guin
knew the difference between cockleburs
and eggplants. Then the other ten seniors
were still alive; then Miss Pauline Scrievner,
ahead of her time, individualized our work;
wrote daily advice on the blackboard —
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
That one, I was sure, caused her to pause
more times than did either Eliot or Donne.
We met again in another nearly-new school,
with a library more technical than Mrs. Legg’s.
Mrs. Legg—next to Ann you would be my daughter
invited me to town to spend the night,
introduced me to steak, Worchestershire, and the ACT,
expanding my dusty paths to roads less taken,
to the world of the university.
But the question remains like Prufrock’s—
would it have mattered after all,
my decisions and indecisions
before the taking of toast and tea
Would it have mattered
had I never taken that route?
We are not the same; we are the same.
we weigh more, we’ve wrinkled,
we’ve shrunk or we’ve ballooned
we’ve married, we’ve divorced,
we’ve given birth, we’ve died,
we’ve gone to school, we’ve worked,
we’ve decorated homes, we’ve raised kids,
we’ve doted on grandkids, we’ve lost touch,
now we’ve come together for one weekend.
We are the not the same; we are the same
as we drive away tonight
without naming superlatives.
The tallest, the prettiest, the best speller?
The richest, the thinnest, the key quarterback?
The one who will live to be 100?
The one most likely to die tonight?
Who needs who’s who?
How clever our parents and teachers
were, how knowing. How surprising
for it to sink in no man is an island,
we are all a part of the main
that we are all related here
beyond just the blood kin.
The Class of 1960, cousins connected
by that thin, indelible wire of roll call:
Joyce Espey Beard, Doris Braselton, Buster Bolton, Jewell Brown,
Douglas Butler, Becky Cabiness, Jerry Cannon, Eric Christian,
Joe Neal Collins, Nina Essary, Bert Elliott, Doris Elliott, Alice Farley,
Eleanor Freeman, Laudis Freeman, Janie Gilliland, Betty Guin,
Jane Harkey, Billie Haynie, Sue Holloway, Shelby Hyche, Ludie Jones,
Melba Jones, Dora Kuykendall, Donald Lunceford, Tony Lunceford,
Mary Jo Maddox, Nancy Clements Micklic, Mary Mims, Mac Olive,
Sarah Frances Oswalt, Edwin Phillips, Martha Pike, Bernice Porter,
Charles Ray, Anna Loyal Rogers, Billy Doyal Rogers, Tiamons Rogers,
Mary Ellen Rowland, Garlon Smalley, Geraldine Smith, Kathleen Smith,
Jerry Simpson, James Sturdivant, Robert Earl Swiney, Norman Traweek,
Beverly Walker, John Doyal Watkins, Beryl Watson, Wyman Watson,
Leland Wheat, Jimmy Wilson, Raymon Winters
present, here, as we round the Cabiness Grocery
Store corner, driving down 43 or 171 to Northport
and from Northport over the Warrior River
into which particles of our dust will one day
mingle in the gentler wash of a celestial sea.
Class of 1960