That winter, when the landfill was bulldozed over,
The crows strutted into town
To roost in the trees along Beaver Creek
And spar over the trash bins down on State Street.
That winter, the mountain shone a pale gray-purple—
The color of a crushed crocus,
or the dying skin of a god
Who turned his back on our town, the double-wides
Sinking in a field of mud, the dim housing projects
Twittering with Christmas lights, their chimneys
Scrawling the sour smoke of whatever might burn.
Defeat must smell like that,
a lumbering feathered mustiness
Or sound like the dozens of rusty caws that swung
Down through branches, through telephone wires
And television antennas
The day Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed,
A few of the men playing instruments,
Zig-zagged towards City Hall.
I saw it from the second floor of my elementary school
After someone shouted Parade! and the windows filled
With waving, giggling third graders.
Mrs. Rutherford tried to shoo us
Back to our desks, then finally gave up, wrote freedom on the board
And smoothed out the front of her dress, waiting
For the clangs and squeaks, for the thin
Backs of the men and their sharp, shiny hats
To whittle away in the winter wind.
That winter, when the wind tumbled down the dark,
and took it all inside me—
The mountain looming in my bedroom window,
Covered in ice, its light waning
From within, daub of leafrot and foxfire going under,
Black branches clicking like turnstile exits—
And the crows in the pines behind the Piggly Wiggly,
Speaking in tongues, spread-winged and gaff-eyed
When they kited down through snow to the dumpsters,
one leg thrust out—
And Jimmy Jenkins, and Mrs. Rutherford wiping chalk
From her hands, and my parents whispering
About the black and white couple who moved in down the street.
Winter wind on my neck, flashback and backlash
Of the past, it all whorls inside me—
the Christmas decorations
Downtown, bells and the jostle of bright lights,
Shopping at JCPenneys with my mother
When the battered Job Corps bus sputtered up
And a line of black men filed off.
They looked dirty and exhausted, and should have,
Working construction the whole day, dynamiting
And bulldozing a hole that would become, by summer,
The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81.
What comes back are their blue coveralls,
And how they hung their heads when their foreman,
The one they called Mr. J. D., seethed at them—
Perk up you bunch of goddamn sissy fusses and wipe off
Your grubby hands before you touch anything.
And maybe this is a story told best by hands:
The sales clerk twisting her pencil, my mother
Clutching her purse and squeezing my arm
Tighter and tighter, the security guard tapping
The handle of his blackjack.
Each man’s hands with their fingerprints and palmprints,
Their sheen of salt and oil, reaching out to cup
The hem of a silk negligee, to stroke the collar of a wool coat.
And one hand ghosting against the warm glass,
The white light of the jewelry counter,
Reminded me of a bird,
its delicate hinges and slender bones.
Defeat brindles on the crows’ calls, snags
In the thick scumble of pines.
It shakes itself from the green needles, a poison
Tunneling through snow,
sifting through a mizzle of sleet.
It’s the knifelight in the water moccasin’s eye.
It’s an absence, a presence, siltslide and cutbank
Where the rhododendron roots fray mid-air.
Gauze and black sticks, halo of coal dust,
It drowns the poor in the backwater,
in the whiskeylight of winter.
Defeat unscrolls like a scrawl of smoke,
It slurs and spiders in the dark: fractured prayers
Blistering like headlights on icy asphalt.
I remember my grandmother—a neat woman,
A kind woman, but a staunch Christian—
Looking out the picture window in her apartment
On the hill, a little tatter of Kleenex
In her fist, her lips pursed as she looked down
On the rooftops of the projects, the mildewed brick,
The crooked chimneys, scraps of tarpaper lifting in the wind.
She turned to me and said, The coloreds ruin everything they touch.
She said, You watch who you make friends with, you hear?
And I did hear, and heard again, a little later,
When she asked me over my cheese and juice,
Do you think if you died tonight you’d go to Heaven?
Later, when I lay in bed fearing an end
I couldn’t even imagine, I gave God a body
And a name, and tried to pray:
I’m an honest boy, Hoss.
My heart is clay, Hoss.
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.
Who is it that saunters there on State Street, holding his hat
With one chalky hand, flashing his polished flask in the other?
Brother Defeat in his swank suit,
hankie sprouting like a little flame.
Brother Defeat in his starched shirt and his tie
Snug in its Windsor knot,
His skin cloyed with the scent of rotting gardenias,
Heading down to the corner of Has Been & Never Will Be,
hunched on his milk crate, polyester shoulders
Worn down to a sheen, pants too tight and riding up
Like a bad dream—
plays his broken accordion,
Busking for gum wrappers and pocket lint.
Of all his busted instruments, he loves the accordion
The most, loves its duct-tape suture and the grooves
Fingered out on the whalebone buttons,
Loves the mice shit rattling around inside it.
Brother Defeat leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot
And stroking his white beard, tossing cashews to the crows
As Sisyphus, eyes shut tight, feels the mountain
Crumbling on his back, feels the night
Sweat through his three-piece suit,
And leans into his wheezing skeleton of song.
Because I wanted to believe in something,
I took the mountain inside me.
Because I believed it couldn’t be moved,
I thought it wouldn’t betray me.
It’s the oldest story I know
But now a hole unfurls through it, through you,
Hoss, to the golf course and the country club,
And now you’re nothing but the lost geography
Of the soul, not the place but the ideal of the place,
Some old longing, unattainable.
Once, God was the land without end,
And those at one with the land
Were at one with God, and work was not work
But a type of prayer, the sun warm on your neck,
The breeze blowing right through you
As your soul stepped out and ran ahead a little
Through the high grasses, through the tangled swell
Of woodbine and buckthorn, through the pines
Beyond the rimrock, and the mountain,
Which was the slow revelation of time itself.
Each thing the soul passed through left its outline,
Left its impression, like a wet feather plastered against glass.
It’s one truth I know older than crows,
But it’s been mapped, cut up, divvied out
So many times, it’s worth nothing more now
Than the broken Christmas ornament
Strewn across the sidewalk as it begins to snow,
And Sisyphus shuffles back onto the bus
For the long ride back to the Get By.
It’s too late for him now, but for a moment
Let me become part of each thing he knows—
Part of the snow planing down, then blown
Into waves of static. Part of the gold glass in the gutter,
The faint light locked behind each piece.
Part of the stray dog trotting around the corner
And its teats trotting in the air beneath it.
Part of the sighs the mountain swallows
And will not fling back.
Part of the sky that unfurls when he cradles
His head in his hands. Part of the crows that strut there.
Part of the watch ticking in his pocket and growing louder,
Time no longer contained but unbridled, one end of his-
Story folding over onto the other,
Endlessly, the way each thin flame of a fire
Lays down on the next, until what’s left
Is the color of defeat, and weighs nothing.
I don’t know what set the crows going, shovel-thump
Or shotgun, or perhaps the kiss of flint in the backs of their minds,
The way the snow kissed the asphalt, and the asphalt snuffed it out.
I don’t know what it was, but one evening they disappeared.
Not for good at first, but they ended up
Where they were for a reason:
there at Carter’s Crossing,
On the hill behind the construction company, the dead burr oak
Alive now with their shifting and preening, their smoky skirls.
Fire on the mountain, fire in the heart
And all those eyes flecked with gold
As Little Jimmy, and the one they called Mr. J.D.,
And Red the security guard from the store,
Stumbled from a pick-up, tossing the tarp off the back
Where Sisyphus was bound and gagged, caught
The day before with a watch lifted from beneath the glass.
They meant to teach him a lesson, they said.
They never meant any harm, they said,
Until the shotgun was fumbled, snub-nose
Down, into the blue-black whump and nightsuck—
And the earth thrummed, and the tree spilled its lichen light, and this is where it all
Swirls and drifts, where I usually lose my place, for the watch has quit ticking
And the Fools have stepped into the trees as if stepping backstage,
Another act done, the theater dark and quiet and filling with snow.
Sisyphus is curled where the spotlight once was, his mask
Peeled back to the face of a man, the wound beneath his eye
A wilted flower that he’s already become,
Just like he’s become the clods of dirt that dribbled
Down his back, and the sound of cars siphoning from one side
To the next, the sweep and bounce of their headlights—
A man becoming something flawless
And iridescent, like the neck of a crow in a family of crows,
Or their measured slap of wings,
first one, then another,
Then all of them lifting through the molten smalt of memory,
Undulating, as if each bird was of one mind, was a single feather
On some larger bird,
emptied of flight one more time.
One by one, the men vanished into the landscape,
And the children returned to their desks,
Only to cradle their heads in their arms and forget
And drift, for good, out of the story into the chatter
And laughter echoing through the corridor.
How can I get it right? How can I push the pieces
Back into place now that the classroom has emptied
And dead leaves flutter in the coat closet,
Now that all the textbooks have filled with flames?
Tonight, my remembering is nothing more
Than a record of my forgetting, and the boy is where
I left him, alone, a blurry face at the window,
Waving now to the white men, comical in their pointy hats,
Now to the black men on the bus, their heads
Bowed, their shoulders slumped to the arc of the sledge.
I am him and not him, trembling in the air
Around his body as the snow
Exhausts its options against the glass.
I am him and not him, the crows long gone,
The day’s lesson done and streaked across the blackboard,
A word that weighed nothing more than the lace handkerchief
Mrs. Rutherford coughed into,
Until the cough, or the memory of the cough, is all
I remember, all the truth has become,
A warm mist where a body once stood.