My mother died three months ago, and then I was chosen Executor, so one way or another she has been much on my mind. She was born in Georgia and all through the late Forties and early Fifties, we five Leimbachers (some of us with more Spivey in us than Leimbacher) got to visit her parents' farm fairly often.
For many years I have struggled to write the suite of poems that would pay tribute to that Southern side. I've rewritten, discarded, tried something else, etc., and finally whittled the work down to a fairly satisfactory five sections. But Mom's death has put cracks in the walls again. I have produced something attempting to tell her part in the Spivey story, have wanted her poem to be part of the larger suite. But I don't think its sentimental tone fits in; too much too soon, no doubt.
For now, let others judge. Here is the long Mystic poem with her section stuck in; if anyone reads the whole work and chooses to give me an opinion, well, I'd be grateful:
History is lies told by the living
To appease the dead. These Spivey stories
Lay moldering for 50 years and more…
Southcentral Georgia after the war—not
The Civil War but World War II, before
Civil Defense and Civil Rights proclaimed
That America’s true colors weren’t red,
White and blue, but Reds, Whites, and shades of Black.
And coming to Mystic too: three hundred
Souls wilting in a country-crossroads
Village, six dusty miles from Ocilla
And a pretty good ways from Fitzgerald.
But my mother’s family home: acres
Of corn and livestock and leaf tobacco;
Last fragment of the Spivey plantation’s
Antebellum past, of old "Boss Cotton"
And a hundred-odd slaves--house, yard, and fields
Put to the torch in that War between States,
Shriveled by failed Reconstruction,
Whittled away in the Thirties… now this
Fading bucolic retreat to the past.
Languid live-oak silhouettes. Emerald
Elephant’s-ear plants flapping in the breeze.
Shattered pecan shells crackling underfoot.
Off-white columns, their paint cracked, wood mildewed:
Old pillars of the "Big House" that now hold
Up nothing. Yet the pineboard porch and worn-
Down farmhouse lean toward them for support.
Days when I dare to, I can balance, cling
With toe-tips and fingers, lean in, and edge
Slowly around each curving bulk of white
On a half-inch ledge just at porch level.
I wander the musty house and grassless
Yard in my pale bare feet (sweet sensation
For a city boy!) and sit on clay dirt
To play Mumbley-Peg—elbow, knee, and toe-
To-toe with colored boys my age, flipping
The sharp penknives they are free to carry.
Sharecropper kids—the sons of black farmers—
And me: from noon on, we chase the sun down
Dirt roads, through dust as soft and slick as silk,
And light like ripe corn. We guzzle ice-cold
Dr. Peppers at the one gas station,
Sliding them carefully through the water-
Chilled metal chambers, the locks and flooded
Ways of that battered pop-bottle canal.
We poke under porch-steps, prodding the blue-
Tick hounds that dream of possums moving slow.
And sometimes we light firecrackers, tiny
Dragon-snappers we toss over the nubbed
Wire fence of silver arches—exploding
In dust puffs that seem to hang in the air
Forever… I am eight and colorless.
Pinecone prickly and peach sweet,
a song of you comes
as sweet and clear
as... pretty as a spray of magnolias yet
tough as the Tar Baby's hide,
or a game of Georgia skin;
...moonlight through the pines,
that was Marjorie Lucille Spivey,
Southern belle, Captain's bride,
and mother of three (stubborn children
who checked her steely core)--
got the blues, can't be satisfied--:
for eighty years and more, she was.
Next-to-youngest of eight--six boys,
"Sister," and her rowdy tomboy self--
jump down, spin around, pick a bale a day,
unfurling like a new tobacco leaf,
a dazzling white cotton boll,
pretty mama, don't you tell on me...
she opened out: farm girl, then campus sweetheart,
then officer's lady, the role she wore best,
goin' up the country, mama,
don't you want to go?
Texas to Turkey to Tacoma,
whether Pentagon hostess
or South Korean mama-san,
no peace, no peace I find...
the "San" she became from then on,
grandmother name she wore like a badge.
Big star fallin',
mama, t'ain't long before day...
but the Colonel's heart and then his mind
were too soon gone,
you been a good old wagon, honey,
but you done broke down...
wearing her down as well, stealin',
stealin' the later joy she'd hoped to find--
look down, look down, that lonesome road...
sharpened Mystic memories finally
more vivid than her pain:
the road leads back to you...
her words lost in Parkinson's at the end.
Black and white, brassy bells clanking,
Bulged udders swoggling side to side,
The Holstein cows amble, slowly, home--
Their ramshackle weathered-gray barn
A cathedral of scattered fodder:
Wall-wide hayloft, feed-trough altar,
And brimming silage bin between.
Nine, I toss down the daily offering
Of cobs and rustling shucks, and would
Kneel to receive some transubstantiation.
But it’s a miracle I cannot grasp,
Though I squeeze and push and importune.
Scourged by swishing tails, bovine breath,
I must take any clumsy remembrance
From Granddaddy’s chalice cup of hands.
Yet mid-days in the barn I can ascend
To a kind of paradise—sprawled in corn,
Scaling sunbeams that spill down through
Cracks and jointures. The Baptist church
A short two blocks away is no more cool
Or peaceful, and just as empty noontimes.
Deacon ushers herd us in on Sundays
And Wednesday nights, to study painted
Glass, our Jesus unseen, the loft in back
For colored believers, and "war no more."
Oh, it’s hellfire next time, the preacher says,
But if we hold on to what’s unchanging,
We will have crossed over; we’ll be
Dwelling in Beulah Land by then.
But the rock I stand on now is sinking
Shucks, and chickenfeed, and a faith
As insubstantial in time as a cowshed.
All you be doin’ wrong bound to come back on you
Say all you be doin’ wrong bound to come back on you
You find out further on what it mean to be black an’ blue
Work song in daytime, people, blues come on at night
Work song long before sundown, blues on ti’ late at night
I jus’ cain’t figure out why you never treat me right
Tobacco grow low an’ green, sweet corn yella an’ tall
Tobacco done growed so green, corn stand yella an’ tall
Blackstrap molasses, tha’s the sweetes’ sugar of all
Boll weevil in the cotton, an’ trouble in the fields
See brown bug in the cotton, there’s trouble in the fields
Folks cain’t chop no squares if they forced to kneel
You scorn me an’ mistreat me, but I am with you still
Scorn me an’ mistreat me, you know I’m with you still
Ain’t but the one road goin’ on up this hill
And suddenly I am eleven, huddled
On the hardpack dirt floor of my
Grandfather’s smokehouse, hiding out
In hickory-scented black, bulk
Of dark shapes dangling from rafters.
Hams, sides of bacon, sausage strings,
Intestine-wrapped remains of fresh-
Bled hogs, homegrown and home-butchered.
Outside, the air shimmers, night scrubbed
From the landings, morning bleached white,
Rinsed clean, hung out to dry in heat
That renders each day limp with sweat.
Tin tub, washboard, and wringer steam
As torrents of light wash the stained
Workbench and plump chickens pecking
In the shade of the chopping block.
But I am secure in darkness,
Freed from my place as lone white boy
In the tobacco barn’s black crew:
Sorting, stacking, hanging green leaves
Harsh for the curing and blending.
These strung-up carcasses of pigs
Whisper violent histories
I can’t redeem, but can’t ignore.
The sun burns long. The days hum down.
My country kin accept me, yet
I am the Yankee city kid
Come calling; misplaced, weighed
By choices I am pressed to make.
We gather on porches, in shade,
To talk and eat and remember
A gracious past: the Mansion, yes,
Its crinolined belles, gallant beaux,
Quartered slaves defining the edge
Of pre-Secession elegance.
Nothing mean-spirited is said;
My kinfolk are determinedly
More than kind—consonants soft-slurred,
Epithets swallowed, good manners
Personified. Yet the smokehouse
Draws me in. No dissembling
Here, among shapes I almost see:
The blood is fresh, the black complete,
The smoldering ashes curative…
And still spreading hickory fumes
In the darkness of memory now,
A haze of blood and smoke and ash
Obscuring the Georgia I lost.