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

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