blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview


I suppose you’ve forgotten that winter ice
descended on our fair county,
for three weeks a wintry mix of hail and sleet and ice rain

muting the boom of big rigs and tankers
that rattled past my bedroom window.

Eighteen days of subteen temperatures
and the solenoid click of dead car batteries.

Three hundred sixty hours of softball-sized hail and cumulonimbus
making hush the rush of commuters who dreamed
their ways home to the Whites Creeks and Mt. Juliets
that satellite your border.

A near month of snowdays and bleak sky
transformed the Nashville International Airport
into a roosting place for “downed birds,”
the waterfront’s cluster of courthouses and honkytonks
gone dark.


It’s all still there.

The bypass. My bedroom.

Mr. Forte’s tithing of scrapheap Fords
sunk to their lug nuts in the subsoil, the thirty-year elm
still the monolith of my backyard. Everything
but the ice that turned to slush
when the cold fronts thinned and thunderheads
broke apart into countless waxen rags,

and you, my hometown, you,
city of my conception, city of my birth,
you became a mud-sucked wallow,

a slurry of slush and downed alders and hawthorns clogging
your subsystems of stormdrains and catch basins,

your watertable rising as raw sewage gurgled up the galvanized
esophagus of service lines and basement drains,

flock after flock of stunned starlings
aswirl in the eddies of the watermain
to short out the sump pumps,

your tributaries and feeders slogged with subfusc,
gutters sagging with the weight of thaw from their eaves.

That storm took eight lives, and it fooled us, the sun
when the stormclouds scalloped and thinned at midday

and that fiery icon appeared to ignite
all the ice-licked watertowers and steeples on the hills,
and we’d think, Perhaps this is it.

Perhaps this is the end of all this windburn and slant hail.
Perhaps these inky nebulae will finally lift like lids from the firmamented world
and we will be free again

only to watch the ice briefly thaw
only to watch the ice fold back over onto itself
and freeze yet again like the process of the refinement of good steel,

the sun’s rays burnishing all the more impassable
(with its dryrag and spittoon with its too-few plows and nowhere-near-enough salt)
your jumbled grid of surface roads and arterials,

your highrises and honkytonks and high-end hotels
shuttered without power on the western edge of the waterfront.


Home . . . Milk-glassed metropolis . . .
Capitol City so proudly brandishing your inked star, how
could you forget the hardwoods ice took down?

American beech and persimmon.
Hard-stoned olives and river birch.
Smooth-trunked hornbeams
and spiny-barked honey locust.

What of the green ash whose winged fruits once spun down
in thick layers beneath spring’s scarred ecliptic?

What of the sycamores who once gazed upon themselves
in the purling channels of the Cumberland
and who sighed when ice felled them,
antheming woeful narratives like paper-lipped oracles
as they drifted downriver—

their snapped limbs the teeth of a deathmachine,
their snapped limbs churning the bottleneck’s rapids?


Mrs. Forte’s prized chinaberry was the first
on my street to fail— a mere three days of ice
when its taproot must have snapped
and it swooned into the arms of Harvey Tanker’s dual Wych elms

and was held there half the night like a bride
(like a mistress like a concubine)

until the Wych elms creaked and groaned and called out
into the night as they collapsed into a hunchbacked sweetgum which
(like allied slavic nationhoods like a domino set aside another domino)
toppled too

and I was shaken awake by the reverb of thunder
and the cracking of dry bones and a shudder in my bedroom walls
when my father burst through the door
and pulled me from bed,

dragged me by the collar down the stairs
to the basement where my mother and sister huddled beneath a workbench,
their faces flashing in and out of the dark
until the power finally failed.


Power failures spread well beyond the county line that night;
Word-of-Mouth spread in our dreams.

And with it, Panic spread wide its millipede arms
to embrace the many Children of God
who made their way to Panic in their sleep.

And with Panic, the Wolf Moon clicked open,
at first no more than a pinpoint of light,
then rippling outward like the widening aperture of an eye until

(pale as an orb weaver pale as an artifact archived in a box in a warehouse of larger boxes)

it beamed in the clear sky (only clear when full-dark rose)
where it hung and was howled to and was worshipped,

Wolf Moon who snoozed all day
beneath the folding banquet tables of the Relief Tents stocked
with the candles and canned goods our mayor
would hang his reelection on,

Wolf Moon who growled from his manged coat,
spit cankered in tiny white grins about his muzzle
(tail lopped off testicles swinging between his haunches like a hangman’s noose),

Wolf Moon who stepped into the street in front of my father
in the guise of two men knuckling tire irons, Wolf Moon

whose teeth gleamed dully in the cheap, Chinese-made steel
as my father handed over the red toboggan of supplies he dragged behind him
and turned back to the tents with his story held forth in his hands;

Wolf Moon who woke me before sunrise
the night of felled trees
(his crazed eye like a looter’s flashlight through the basement windows),

the hazed chord of my fogged breath drawing me down the hall

(as my family slept on the floor)
(as i drew pinwheels in the plumes of their hazed breath that hung in the cold)
(as i watched the pinwheels spiral like ferrises in the gloom)

and when I found myself crawling through the broken glass
of our backdoor, I found myself climbing into the limbs of trees,

the branches brittle as glass
(brittle as jawbones dug up in the yard brittle as chert),

and when they broke in my hands
(i wore no gloves i wore no coat)
I spread my arms to fall and was held bobbing in the brace of the dark,

and when my hand fell upon a nest of dead Opossum,
my scream echoed as though I were in a chamber,

and when my hands fell upon a frozen cardinal,
I cupped that little avian in my palms
and blew into the space between thumbs like a whistle
until I felt it twitch and unfurl

(its heart firing up like a v-twin its lungs catching fistfuls of air like a set of pistons)

until I opened my hands and it burst forth from my palms and I rose with it

(and we circled my backyard we circled my father’s crushed moped we circled the ice-
entombed steeple across the street and the circle widened as we circled as we circled
as we circled)

until I found myself, three years in the future on my bike,
speeding down Charlotte Ave. toward Pearl Cohn High,
backpack slung over my shoulder,
wind cutting across my scalp as I passed my parent’s bank
and passed through the grafitied throat of the underpass
to weave the maze of “Affordable” Housing,
their foundations cracking like Pop Rocks and soda,
toy drums and carriages and deflated footballs left out in the mudyards,

and I circled the alleys between houses
where garbagemen fed refuse into the government-blue mouths of trashtrucks

and I watched myself, an eighth-grader, making my way
to the abandoned quarry on the eve of my teens

(and i watched myself stand on its edge in the total dark)

(and i couldn’t breathe for those seconds that seemed like hours as i watched myself step off
the quarry’s edge into the void)

(and it seemed like days until i heard myself splashdown in the bilgewater [as we circled as
we circled] and i feared for my life [as the cardinal grew impatient as we circled] as i
waited for the sound of my sputtering to the surface and swimming slowly back to
shore [as we circled as we circled as we circled])

and I circled the pea-gravel roof of Bass Junior High
and saw Laticia Moore pull me, not yet twelve, to her beneath the eastern stair
to teach me to French kiss as my mother checked her watch
in the parking lot as she listened to NPR, waiting yet again
to pick her son up from basketball practice,

and I saw myself in a circle of classmates
as I circled with Larry Hendrix
(the white kid whose clothes were never washed the white kid who the black kids called
white trash)
just days before the summer between sixth and seventh grade, the circle
calling (as we circled) for one of us to throw the first punch
(as i whispered to him you don’t have to do this)
the circle crying out for us to stop being pussies, fight fight fight
(as i whispered to him go on, run home like the little bitch you are),

and I circled (as we circled)
the stormdrain’s mouth

and found myself, barely ten, wriggling
through its narrow slot to navigate by flashlight
its drainpipes and intakes where white girls

(it was said by white boys)

were said to come here with black boys to fuck in the dark
and neighbors’ drowned kittens were strung up by fishing line
to ward off spirits (as i circled as i circled as i circled).


Oh city,

Oh little nation,

Oh small market of selective memory and quarterback controversies,
how long it took for the I-65 to reopen,
how long it took for the salt trucks on loan from Louisville and Cincinnati
to clear your beloved network of highways
and surface roads
depends on who you ask.

Three weeks of no TV.
No Dallas reruns on the boobtube.
No McNeill/Lehrer on the squawkbox.

No artificial heat for eighteen days.

Three hundred sixty hours of D-Cell radios and canned beans.

Four hundred thirty two thousand seconds of hunger.

Ask Robert Leidick
(the fat kid on my block who failed the fifth grade and whose dyke mom stashed the stack of
playboys we plundered beneath her s-10’s bucketseat)
and he’ll swear we couldn’t play Donkey Kong all winter.

Inquire of the Forte’s next door
(the good catholics who built the home i slept in the good samaritans who spent their
saturdays at the st. mary’s shelter and scolded me for emulating magic johnson’s
skyhook [you know why they replied when I asked])
and they’ll tell you the church held services by candlelight in the gymnasium
well over a month.

Speak to my father
and he’ll tell you we heated our bedrooms by pumpstove
for no less than two weeks.

Talk to my mother
and she’ll thumb through her calendar
to discover the schoolyear was extended well into June.

Look it up
and history will claim
the storm lasted
all of three days.

No declaration of natural disaster.
No rattle of John Deere generators.
No bug zapper buzz of arc lights illuminating the Relief Tents.
No Wolf Moon or looters howling through hoarfrost.


Sometimes, when silence falls like the silence
all that ice brought with it, I wonder if it ever ended: the bypass closed down,
the absence of limbs for the wind to cut through.

More than once I’ve woken to the echo
of the scrape of plows finally clearing our street in my ears
though the chuck and growl of the window unit,
though sunlight in slats through the Venetian blinds
inform me it’s any season but winter.

Sometimes I swear I can hear my mother and father still arguing
about the Clintons in the kitchen, a thin crease of strained light
seeping beneath my bedroom door.

That storm was seventeen years ago
(i must say aloud before rising).

In eight years (i remind you), a girl I love
will climb to the roof of one of your buildings
and vanish.

They’ll say she jumped. They’ll say
she is dead. Some will draw pictures of her body crippled
on the sidewalk. Some will take photos of her there
only to burn the negatives. You’ll never
see Mary again, they’ll say. You must learn to forgive yourself.

Seven years after that, dear homeplace,
dear city in which we both were born (don’t say i didn’t warn you),

seven years after that, stunned abattoir of failed altos and flaming guitar picks
(rubbing the cold out of my arms gazing across your alleys and trashbins and smokestacks
from this rooftop [as i blink in the bright lights of the twenty-first century])

seven years after that
the floods (will come [the floods will come] the floods)
will come, amen.  end  

return to top