Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mystic Too

Part 3 (this "second section" posted) has always been the spoiler, the faulty part that made this a "work in progress" for more than 40 years. No matter what I tried or how roughly I revised, it always came out, well. just silly. But two weeks ago, I realized that a second character might be the answer... Now, thanks to James (below), this suite of poems may have a reason to exist.

3. Shucks

Black and white, their brassy bells clanking,
Bulgey udders swoggling side to side,
The Holstein cows amble—slowly—home,
To the saggy, weather-gray lean-to,
More shed than barn, but like a tall church
To me and James, with scattered fodder
From the roof-long hayloft and feed-trough
Altar, and the brimming silage bin
Between. We add to it every day,
Tossing down hard cobs and dried seed-corn,
Rustling shucks that feed the farm critters:
Red corn, yellow corn, more corn. James is
Darker than me, and funny; he sings
To cows, and hogs we slop (also me):
“Hey, sugar babe, what’s your wagon for?
You done broke down, git on out the door,”
And “Hen chickens roost behind the sun,
How you gone to see a day’s work done?”

Then he grabs a cow’s teat, squirts me good,
Ducks away. (James is nine like me, but
I swear he’s crazy.) So when I kneel
To milk his cow, of course I get tail-
Swished and kick-bucketed. I practice
On old Bessie--squeezing gently; no
Yanking--but she's still a miracle
I cannot grasp. The Baptist preacher
Two blocks over may holler and pull
And push, but his white church is no more
Cool or peaceful, and just as empty
Noontimes. James would soar from that steeple--
If they let him be--a pilot like
His uncle, Will, who fought in the War.

I guess Will got himself a red scarf
For missions he flew, and he cut off
A piece James carries for luck. Pine-wood
Joins and notched supports and the sagging
Beams carry us up and up, as high
As we dare climb, to a paradise
Of air and light, and gravity as
We choose--sunbeams spilling through the roof,
James’ dreams of flight sprawled across the loft,
But each in its own space: his flour-
Sack cape, his rickety handmade kite,
Two airplane pictures torn from somewhere.

Up there, James soars; he makes up stories
Of "Will at War." He can leap out far
And still land in silage, or fall free
Into soft hay. He can even crash
Straight down to Georgia earth. Me too, when
I dare; he’s made me his co-pilot.
(I said he was crazy, didn’t I?)

Tuesday, I don’t know why, I said, “Hey,
James, is that red cloth a nigra thing
Or what?” He looked at me once, then looked
Away. We walked the cows in, moving
Apart. No songs. It was the loudest
Silence that I’ll never hear again…

Listening in church now, I hear James
High up in the loft, singing each hymn
Out loud, the colored windows open
Wide to fight the heat down here. He'll be
Thinking, “I don’t feel at home in this
World any more,” and wishing he could
Fly away… Oh, it’s hell-fire next time--
So the preacher says. But if we hold
To what’s unchanging, we’ll be borne on
Angels' wings, dwelling in Beulah Land...

This I know: the rock I stand on now
Is sinking shucks and chickenfeed and
Old ways as broken as the cowshed.

* * * * *
Parts 4 and 5 are ready to post and will appear in fewer days. (Hmm... should that be interpreted as threat, or promise?)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Suite Mystic

My excuses for being over a week late are true but boring, so let's just get to it... with "it" being the first third (parts 1 and 2) of this five-part Suite Mystic, devoted to my mother's family past and near present, and to the daily life of white folks and black on the Spivey's Georgia farm--which we visited regularly in the late Forties and early Fifties.

The narrator of these five poems is/is not me. But, for whatever reason, the writer (me, yes) chose to impose partial form on these free verse pieces. Three of them attempt this by requiring a fixed number of syllables in each line, while still giving up traditional rhymes and repeating rhythms; the fourth and fifth take on other forms, even a bit of rhyme. But, standard or free, the five must add up to something worth a reader's investment of time--a small truth, an interesting lie, or something in between...

Suite Mystic

1. Stories

History is lies told by the living
To appease the dead; memories falter,
So flawed tales slip in. My Spivey stories
Lay a-moldering 50 years and more…

Southcentral Georgia after the War—not
The Civil War but World War II, before
America’s true colors appeared, un-
Civilly: Whites and Blacks, Reds and the Blues.
Coming to Mystic as well: three hundred
Souls wilting at a country crossroads--no
Town--a dusty six miles from Ocilla,
With Fitzgerald a good 20 more; but
My mother's home, the family's acres
Of corn and livestock and leaf tobacco.
Last fragment of the Spivey plantation,
Antebellum time of old “Boss Cotton”
And a hundred-odd slaves--house, yard, and fields
Put to the torch in that War between States,
Farm shriveling as Reconstruction failed;
Land whittled down in the Thirties… Now this
Out-of-time retreat to a futile past.

2. Scenes

Languid live-oaks in silhouette. Green-skinned
Elephant’s-ear plants flapping in the breeze.
Scattered pecan shells crackling underfoot.
Off-white columns, their paint cracked, wood mildewed—
Old pillars of the “Big House” that hold up
Nothing now. 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 Mumbly-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,
Carefully sliding them out through 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 live 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 rile the cemetary's
Empty silence, hanging in that burst air

                 I am eight and colorless.

* * * * *
Part 3, titled "Shucks," will be up in a few days... if I master computer and meds.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Spivey Brothers, Mothers, and Others

I hosted a party last weekend.

In Hollywood some publicity department might shout: “Eighty years in the tectonic aligning! Fifty years in the imagining! Twenty years in the making!” What it came down to was, I cooked us up some Spivey Brothers Barbecue Sauce, and a bunch of guys came over to try the ribs, chicken, and excellent Louisiana-style hot links, per the smoke-and-red-pepper heat of that long-gone, Shreveport-out-of-Georgia sauce.

The young woman in the photo--think of her as unannounced muse of the party--is my mother as a spirited teen in the mid-Thirties, youngest of eight children; six sons, that is, plus two daughters. (Good thing for me that much-loved sibling Marjorie Lucile Spivey had no cause to mess with that Mystic, Georgia bridge shown in the background.) And the elderly couple trying out for the sequel to American Gothic are Mom’s looking-too-serious parents, Jesse T. Spivey and Lucile Cook Spivey, photographed in the late-Fifties after they’d
sold the family farm and followed their four surviving sons to Shreveport.

Back in May of 2009, I wrote at length about the brothers’ barbecue sauce business (here), and since then I’ve had emails from a score of SBBS fans, oldsters and youngsters alike, who’d loved it long ago, heard raves about it from relatives, searched all across the South, tried to recreate the unknown recipe, Googled the name (and discovered my blog post), ended up pleading with me to share the sauce’s secrets...

The upshot was that after sitting on the recipe ever since 1993 when Uncle Bobby, next youngest to my mother but nearly 80 by then, chose to pass the charcoal-fired torch on to me… after all those years, I say--I say, son, I say--I decided the time had come to put up (a batch) or shut up (the grill). I searched a dozen dusty bookshelves, found the errant envelope at last, and set to work… “work” in this case meaning
studying the list of ingredients, then enlisting a few grill-enthusiast chums to serve as the brawn--I mean brain--trust for this sensitive project.

Some Spivey family lore may be in order at this point. The two middle sons died early, Charles killed in World War II and stubborn smoker Henry by throat cancer in the early Fifties. He was a bachelor and had his own house near the big farm; his death knocked out a prop the (grand)parents sometimes leaned on, because the other boys had abandoned the fading farm years before that and had made Shreveport their base.

Oldest son “Bubba” was full grown by the time Mom was born, and an elderly man by the time I started paying attention. Next in line was Jack, a
steward on ocean liners, who brought coins, stamps, and other good stuff back from his voyages. (Aunt Hester was married and a resident of Savannah, so not involved.) With Henry and Charles gone, brothers Pat and Bobby became more family oriented and Pat at least more churchified.

Mom always said I looked and acted like Pat--here as the left-handed Huck Finn character busy drowning worms. (Young double “Cousin Eddie” just tried to look swave and deboner.) But I’m aging to resemble my father more and more: bald, shortened, gradually withdrawing.

Deacon Pat also followed another supposed Southern tradition, marrying Charles’ pregnant widow and raising that rowdy new arrival as his own--through hot rods, wild broncs, rodeo days and grass-widow nights--alongside their large brood of kinder-Spiveys.

Bobby must have enjoyed parenting too since he helped produce four more stalwart sons. (One of them, my cousin Joe, is a well-known country music fiddler ranging from Nashville down to Shreveport, from the Grand older Opry to the late-lamented Louisiana
Hayride, those two longtime linchpins of regional Southern radio.)

In earlier days back on their sold-off Mystic farm, the dark and strangely unsettling smokehouse eventually became an important symbol to me. (See the related post coming next time, which will excerpt some bits from my suite of poems about “Mystic.”) But to the brothers I expect it was just a training stop on their way to the barbecue pit in Shreveport and the unexpected success of their “old family recipe” sauce.

Granny and Granddaddy were gone, and then Bubba too, by the time the business went deep South, and the Kraft Corp. stepped in, buying the Spivey recipes, any established good will, and an enforced silence... then craftily created the corpse,
killing the barbecue sauce along with the rest of the Spivey Brothers line.

Well, the gallon-and-some of sauce that I cooked up the other day did at first seem a mite heavy on the vinegar and mustard. But after several tastes, the brain trust and I decided to add more water and let the concoction simmer a while longer. And did those few ounces and minutes make a difference? All I’ll say is that the restless attendees were suddenly voracious, slathering sauce over links, ribs, breasts, hands, faces, and luckless shirts. Whether by fingertip, spoonful, or pint jar, the sauce was consumed.

As a result I'm thinking of producing a limited number of special t-shirts--a gift to participants but inexpensively available to Spivey Brothers devotees as well. It’s an all-type shirt so far, maybe with messy barbecue stains included. The front might read thus: “I GOT SAUCED AT THE SPIVEY BROS. BARBECUE REVIVAL, JULY 28, 2012.” And on the back: “If I told you the recipe, I’d have to kill your appetite.”

A better message (okay, funnier) may pop up, but meanwhile I do have some words for the SBBS fans… Forget the sauce version we made. I’m just not the one to consult for the recipe or the list of basic ingredients. As I indicated earlier in this piece, it’s really not my place or my decision to make. I’m a distant quasi-Spivey, yes, but the Shreveport area is chockablock with direct descendants of the four brothers.

Go talk to one of my cousins, will ya, please?

Oh, and the dog? Shoot, every Southern barbecue needs a steamy, edge-of-the-
bayou shack with some ol' houn'dog sleepin' under the porch. You could thumb through Miz Welty, or Faulkner... Penn Warren, O'Connor, Styron, Percy, and all them other storymakers. (Hunh! Gossip-spreaders more like, ever' one of 'em. And that's all!)