Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was conceived on a houseboat on the Ashley River in Charleston, South Carolina and was born in Monroe, North Carolina first year of the Baby Boomers. I got my undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. My kin, Irish immigrants to North and South Carolina, fought for the Confederacy. I drive miles out of my way to eat Lexington Barbeque, and belong to a band of pirates and sailors, Brothers of the Coast, located in Savannah, Georgia. I live in the town of Black Mountain in western North Carolina.
The big kid in class, I rode the new horse, 17 hands high.
Old Fisher thought
I could handle him. I threw up the saddle, saw lather on his back
from a workout. He jerked
at the cinch. Fisher’s daughter, Mary Lib, boosted me up. My mother
carpooled us that day,
waited in our paneled station wagon reading until the horses entered
the ring. Big Brown
and I marched second. All the horses knew the drill so I kept the reins
slack. They walked in line
to the far end of the ring next to Providence Road. We always trotted
first and on the correct lead
put the horse into a canter and cruised around the ring. Stable
horses knew the slap
of reins, dig of heels. My turn. On the first bounce up of the trot
Brown broke into a gallop.
He dashed 30 yards and fell. Brown had me pinned under his belly,
my head between his hooves.
I heard someone yell Stay still. We’ll rock you out. I saw my mother
at the horse’s hooves,
heard Mary Lib’s panic. Then the same man who spoke to me
told Mary Lib to sit
on Brown’s head. He rocked the horse back and I skittered out, dusty
face, a puffy lip
but unharmed. The man, a doctor, checked my teeth,
and my head for lumps.
Bruises started to bloom on mother’s legs. The other children were
sent off. On our way out
I heard a gunshot.
Moon low over pines
on Sisters’ Key, pumpkin
with its stem blown away.
Dark water mooring.
Wind ripples a thin strip
of light to our sailboat
Stops short abeam
but we know it’s meant for us.
Boat shifts with the current
and the moon changes its angle.
Every boat anchored
nearby receives its own beam.
The moon stands watch.
NIGHT TRAIN (Durham tobacco warehouse, 1967)
It ain’t the band’s fault
or the Flames’. Band’s tight.
They know I stare down a false
note, but these frat boys singing
along are stone deaf. Nothing happens
here by chance. It’s all choreographed.
Flight of my cape, sling of my sweat.
My knees sink to the stage, and I levitate
from inner thighs.
I can do road gigs another 30,40 years,
with help of the Good Lord
and a little herb.
A frenzy to fool them –
mike dropped to the floor
and jerked back then prayed
over. Escape from handlers
leading me off stage exhausted
to sing one more song hushed
low then screeched high.
My fans ask If you’re so famous,
how come the Law rousts you
out of bed? I point to the Free
James Brown bumper stickers.
I’m not only the Godfather
but also the Ambassador of Soul
with full diplomatic immunity.
I had a vested interest in Arlevia’s staying as our cook. My mother
couldn’t cook. Arlevia later fed my three children standing
behind her at the stove waiting for pieces of crispy fried squash,
eggplant and okra. My youngest Logan still remembers Arlevia’s fried
chicken, better than Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte picked second
best in the country by Good Morning America.
I was her boy, greeted by a hug and smile across her broad face.
My mother didn’t take a cake or casserole when Laney, Arlevia’s husband,
died but she did testify at the funeral. Mom and Arlevia grew old together,
gardened after Arlevia retired. My father fitted a golf cart with a long bed
to haul plants and vegetables. They rode it up the hill, taking turns driving,
wearing floppy smudged hats against the afternoon sun.
Mom learned Arlevia had a stroke and couldn’t speak. Shortly after, Mom fell,
didn’t break anything, but knew she couldn’t return home. I cancelled
the Monroe Enquirer-Journal in person. The man I talked to followed me out
to the street.
Didn’t Arlevia Laney work for your mother? He told me she was still alive
and could speak a little. I said, Mom, you should call Arlevia. She replied, I can’t.
We need to remember each other strong, working in the garden.
Growing vegetables, not becoming one.
CRYSTAL’S FACE JUGS
See how cruel the whites
look. Their lips are thin.
(Chief Mountain Lake
to Carl Jung, 1932)
One of her biblical lions –
ready to roar, tongue lolling
between incisors, tail arched –
is exhibited in the Mint Museum,
but she spends most of her time
pushing clay into the shape
of bug-eyed, crooked-toothed idiots.
Slaves first made these jugs,
she says, with clay left over
from firing master’s dinnerware.
I can’t say, Why copy
something ugly, so I ask
Whom were the jugs modeled after?
She smiles, Don’t the thin lips