Bienville General Store
--Bienville Parish, north Louisiana, the 1950s
The far-flung grains of starlight twinkle still
Along the night’s deep streams and in the sand
Blown down from north Louisiana hills,
Washing Saline’s main street in gritty waves
As a long key clicks in the door’s brass lock,
A knob turns, and the flapped shade-rod taps glass.
All else inside waits quiet for Jacob Cobb,
Proprietor and keeper of this place.
As yet there’s no electric light or sign
And so he trims the oil-lamp’s corded wick
Until a yellow glow pervades the room
While dawn-pinks touch the slant front window’s dust.
He adjusts and brushes each thing featured there;
A music box whose top holds inlaid stars,
The silken threads of spectrums made of spools,
An army knife with blades of gleaming steel.
He stokes with coal the black potbellied stove,
Grinds fine the dark-roast beans, then boils a pan
Of water for the iron drip coffeepot
And tosses peanuts on the stove’s warm lid.
Full morning brings a few tired farmers in
To sip black coffee, crack the well-parched shells,
And be content in winter while the land
Rests from its nine months’ labor like a wife.
Their flannel shirts recall those tartan kilts
Ancestors left in highlands for these hills,
A life now long forgotten but in blood --
Their ruggedness, a clan-cry’s rebel yell
That grandsons raised while crossing No Man’s Land
As they had done from Seminary Ridge.
Near noon, with chicken baskets, wives arrive.
The farmers eat in Jacob Cobb’s backroom,
Then play cards, chess, or checkers, taking kings.
The women shop for sugar, flour, threads,
And, at a husband’s bidding, harnesses
And halters or a box of shotgun shells.
Bills tallied, charged or settled, all depart
And Jacob now has something for himself,
That natural time of rest, the afternoon.
He sits outside upon a warped pine bench
Uneven as the sidewalk’s cypress planks
Now feathered with the yellow winter grass.
He throws the last shelled peanuts toward an oak
Grown massive by his store these hundred years
Because no one quite ever got around
To pulling the sapling up or sawing
The young trunk down, a trunk whose roots
Have slowly curled for decades on the ground.
The nuts draw squirrels, and for the common birds,
The crows, robins and grackles, perky wrens,
Field sparrows and the dark red cardinals --
A general avian council’s peaceful feast --
Jacob scatters the cracker-barrel crumbs
And stale seed-corn from last year’s bumper crop.
Then staying till the dusk brings hungry hawks
And screech-owls looking for the meal-bin’s mouse
Swept from the store once more by Jacob’s broom,
He knows he had done right to come back home
After accounting school and those drear years
In cities of an Egypt’s gilded age.
His dying father pleading, he returned
And learned the pace of business country style,
Those old due dates of seasons and the soul,
The handshake bargaining, small debts forgot,
Then later both remembered and made good
In kind or kindness twenty times or more.
The Kingdom’s economics here foretold
Kept him from what he feared was nearly set
First to encroach on, then to overwhelm
This trading post between the mall and farm
Where afternoons he drifted on Black Lake,
The fish-chains dragging perch through depths of sun.
Yet now the day would end as it began
With far-flung grains of starlight twinkling still
Along the night’s deep streams and in the sand
Blown down from north Louisiana hills
To wash Saline’s main street in gritty waves
And gleam like fallen heavens on this land.
She wheels her chair beside a locked oak chest
That holds both christening and wedding gowns,
Her mother’s things she’s always cherished best
And worn herself, love’s heirloom hand-me-downs.
Her husband far afield pushes a plow
His father made to break this fertile land
His son as father works with his son now,
The well-worn handles passed from hand to hand.
The son’s put on his father’s overalls,
Just come to manhood and a grownup’s size;
A daughter wraps her mother-woven shawls
Across full breasts no shawl or blouse disguise.
This family knows that little’s really new,
That most of life’s composed of hand-me-downs
Someone before us thought or made or grew,
Then gave or left us like a mother’s gowns
Or Bible with its ever-spreading tree
Whose limbs bear names like those oak limbs outside
Young grandsons mount calling with that same glee
Their grandma felt who wheels to watch them ride.
The Singing Wires
--Saline, Bienville Parish, north Louisiana,
The Christmas gifting over, he strolled in the great mundane,
Sad aftermath to wonder, the same old world again,
A boy not yet twelve but with a man’s imagination,
Waiting for the muse’s fatal instigation.
And going down the welcome-walk where pink wood sorrel grew
Long summers when he wandered, prince of all he knew,
He smelled no blazoned fragrances from blooms withered and gone
But gazed on high-pitched phone-wires, stark and taut in dawn.
The walk led to a gravel drive with pebbles gleaming bright --
Translucent yellow, rust, and pink, gray, black, and cloudy white --
And up above them, some ways off, those telephone wires strung
One line above another, pole to pole, straight hung.
The scene looked like a lined white page or like a music sheet
Designed for sounds of words or notes high above the street.
The boy scooped up a good handful of many-tinted stones
To hit the wires and set off twanging monotones.
He threw sidearm and overhead -- rocks jagged, flat, and round --
Some zinging wires that whined with vibrant cadenced sound
Though most stones arced and fell away through silence to the sand
Washed from pinewood slopes to build up watermelon land.
The boy soon tired of what it took to keep the wires singing
And so the lines grew still again though they kept ringing
Inside the mind of one almost ready to comprehend
The muse had chosen him that day for her own end.
And so in time his lines like wires would move with carol, song,
Eclogue, georgic, elegy, and anthem set along
This wold’s millennium-rhythms, iambic hills one hears
Measured out in eons like the music of the spheres.
Testament of the Elder Son
“Now his elder son was in the field . . .” (Luke 15: 25)
--for the southern agrarians
The twilight spreads through barley, wheat, and rye
Bending in winds that never stay the same
While I, a posted ghost who raised them high
Still hear the dancing grasses say my name.
With trembling limbs and feeble knees I stand
Hard guardian of these patrimonial rows
Whose furrows yield to seasoned brow and hand
Crops tended by a well-versed heart that knows
When locusts swarm in spring above the grain
Or how the twisted olive’s limbs decline
With fruit grown ripe in warm late summer rain
And why long droughts make raisins on the vine.
I bear the ancient burden of the earth
As steward of the corn and egg and seed
And understand what bulging barns are worth
When famine sows the land with fearful need.
And here I stood some forty years ago
Still winnowing the tares from bearded wheat
By nightfall when there rose up from below
Wild music for the prance of dancing feet.
Then leaving these high terraces I found
My father’s house aroused by wine and song,
My grain-fed calf spit-roasted, turning round,
My younger brother robed among the throng.
I shunned that unjust feast but sent in word
Which drew my father out while I complained,
Though he, in his warm mercy, barely heard,
So flush with lush forgiveness unrestrained.
He said again that all he had was mine --
As if it could be otherwise by law --
Although a third was gone among the swine
Whose latest feeder’s new gold ring I saw.
Strong drink, the dice, the whores, the foreign gods,
Then famine in the land -- he told his tale
That ended in a wallow’s carob-pods
And in this revelry more fit for Baal.
Years passed, my father died, and I became
Sole owner of estates already mine
Since harvests long had granted me the same
Great stores of corn and cattle-flesh and wine.
A man of substance taking stock I paid
My wealthy sonless neighbor’s bridal-fee
To have as mother of my sons a maid
Erotic in her comely modesty.
Together we grew middle-aged, then old,
With sons enough to work a fertile land
Now doubled as my prudence had foretold
And daughters married well as I had planned.
And what of him for whom the calf was slain,
A rioter welcomed home with riotous dance?
He soon sought that far country once again,
His contrite heart no more than circumstance.
And when at last word came that he had died
Of drunkenness, disease, and poverty
I placed him with his father, side by side,
In shallow graves beneath a carob-tree
Home: A Farm Wife's Daybook
I consider the days of old;
I remember the years long past;
I commune with my heart in the night;
I ponder and search my mind.
Today I sugared and sealed the last preserves,
Blueberries plucked in deep July outside,
Cooked down for hours till time itself conserves
Sweet essences where flesh and mind abide.
I read my Bible far into the night
By moonbeams bright as limelight on a bed
In which my husband dreams of harvest, blight,
A mystery play he stages in his head.
The morning psalms all tell of Lebanon,
Its hills that peak in cedars, windblown wheat;
Outside, ice-crackling fields slope up and on
Toward dogwoods white in Easter's late white sleet.
Near dusk I rock before the hearth and sew
By stone and wood turned up in well-turned land
These cotton threads I stained dark indigo,
Stark strands strained tight by native heart and hand.
The hall's grandfather clock goes tick and tock,
Stark makers of its well-read book of hours,
Its turning moons grown ripe like sheaf and shock,
Time's gathered aftermath of scattered flowers.
His muzzle on cold paws beside the fire,
Our bloodhound, far in winter, warms old bones,
Eyes fluttering back once more in dream's desire,
Hares chased through snowy ash by the hearth's pawed stones.
The weather in the window takes its time,
Late winter dandelions, mid-August cries
Of crickets doomed to mate, then die in rime
When fall's shrill winds exhale their icy sighs.
From speechless dreams I wake before the day,
The Bears and Hunter coursing round the pole,
While like its owl night's silence seems to say
This world is more than matter, mind, and soul.
I made a simple soup from stalks and heads
Of those last plants the winter garden yields,
Shallots and cabbage, finished in dead beds,
Their mulch a pulp to feed green Easter fields.
Our moon-drenched village square's a golden glade
For a medicine show's snake oil and midnight ramble;
At home, for cure, I raise a yellowed shade
On shrikes whose lizards writhe on thorny bramble.
What must be done draws me through predawn cold
To this black hole, its starless pit of lime;
I sit and let necessity take hold,
Soul humbled in the wrenching stench of time.
Outside, by night and day, the solar years
Move through their seasoned eons, holy tones
Of equinox and solstice, centered spheres,
Slow quarter notes of quartered skies and zones.
Inside, the wound grandfather clock ticks on,
Diurnal and eternal in its chimes,
Its face of changing moons sounded by one
Great lunar noon that ranges through its rhymes.
Bought needles knit spun threads of yellow flax
Dyed by the essence drained from indigo,
Our local colors stained, then placed on racks,
Taut mind and matter twined for use and show.
Waiting on yeast to foam, the well-worked dough
To rise as wheat stalks rose to give us flour,
Loaves baking in their spells, then cooling slow --
All things in God's good time since time's ninth hour.
From fields where cows graze deep in winter hay
Manure and mulch enrich and cover roots
Till tender stems, engendered by the day,
Make green our pale March garden with their shoots.
My husband sows deep furrows with his salt
Dropped on seed-crop grains, pushing his plow
Through ready earth till sundown brings a halt,
Then supper, bed, a fertile wife's now, now.
As words give way in moaning's wordless kiss,
Held by his dark fixed eyes and lowered tone,
My many no's become one yes with his
Warm wet shaft nudging under the quim-bone.
Midwinter spring and one lorn butterfly
Is born into a world of ice and doom;
Soon time will tell great blood-moons prophesy
When blood is held inside this lunar womb.
Each spring leaf-blades curl aching from the waste
Of sludge-ice melting brown into the wild
Whose verdant urgencies surge up in chaste
Passions that wed to make a man, a child.
He sucks my milky nipples by the fire,
My newborn son whose name is carved upon
Gray headstones of his grand and great-grandsire,
His own head tender still by embered stone.
Some wonder why I chose to stay at home,
A shallow question fathomed best by this:
Why would I be unsexed? -- a bubble in foam
Adrift on the stillest depths of hers and his?
Beyond the hilltop twilight flares, then fades
From wrought-iron fence and tilted marking-stones,
My kindred's dust and souls among the shades,
Spare Vulgate psalms above their common bones.
First flakes that melting dwell in winter veins
Of fall's red leaves the brittle ice-winds stir,
Azalea-springs in February rains,
Green summers quelled when autumn crickets chirr . . .
A century of lines and this lined face
Almost a centenarian's, I close
My daybook now, this cedar chest the place
For words close-pressed by rosary and rose.