What dies at the top is already dead at the root.
Little wonder people I meet on the street turn
away when I tell them where I came from,
why I’m here. There is a photograph: mother
leads son by one hand, she’s wearing glasses,
walking Fort Smith’s main street, Garrison,
he’s dressed like a little man, they said then,
it’s a week day and we’re in town to shop
and this guy with a camera caught us on film.
He didn’t know where the one surviving son
of this woman came from, it wasn’t her fault
he had no older brother to hold her other hand.
We both came from down there by the river
originally. You could see it that way. You had
to hear me tell it, now all the others are dead.
I could gussy it up, give it rein, get a laugh
where those before me wept in church aisles
to hear such stuff as your mama used to whore,
your papa had his own, you’ll never know who
you are. All I knew was my family tree died
long before I was born. The poisoned roots
killed my brother Bobby, sure as he was born
and died before the year was out and I, born
three hours before another year ended, lived.
No, it didn’t happen so neatly you could say
we were a doomed family because one root
died and poisoned the tree entirely. No, can’t
you see how a story can sway history one way
–happiness after the many years of struggle–
before time’s passed and the truth comes out.
Walking with my mother along Garrison Street
–or was it, is it, Boulevard?–I had little idea
I would be writing this one day in dour silence.
Yes, dour. I am no happier than you to know
instinct used to be greater than reason but now
hardly exists at all–up here, I mean, where men
and women gather and send old codes across
–across what? the room that is no longer there?
two sides of the same street? from one car
to the other also waiting for the light to change?
–call them ancient habits of the human animal,
they are never for sale save in the past’s brothels,
they are innocent as lambs, courageous as lions,
wise as grandfolks, and they have never sinned.
Still, there are stories my father’s mother’s father
gallivanted along The Row by the Arkansas
where on the other side lies Oklahoma, red earth
it translates. And his mother took up with a man
who rode a horse across country to sell his songs
by passing the hat, growing so famous his name
my grandmother gave my father, and in the South
it’s your first and middle name you are known by.
On the other side, my mother’s mother’s mother
opened an establishment over there, in Oklahoma,
up the river and a little west of here, east of Tulsa,
where nothing was established, it was all on view
but who had time to look with all those lovely
lovelies loving or looking to give love for pleasure.
That’s another story. My father’s mother’s father's
gone to whores when his wife, the Cherokee, is in town,
one much smaller than Fort Smith, her daughter
playing in the plaza while her mother, fully wooed,
lies down in the hotel bed under Manuel Romain
conceiving a son who will be stillborn and she will
bleed to death and they will be buried together
in a common grave, the widower too poor to buy
a second casket let alone pay for the one lowered
into the shoveled grave, he’s given it all to whores.
Or so say the righteous, the irredeemably saved.
Saved from what? from themselves, from us . . .
The street photographer was not called an artist,
he sold his pictures for money. No Polaroids yet,
he took your name and address and printed up
a picture from the negative and send it to you
and you sent him his money back. In those days
people trusted one another it’s no surprise sin
was scarce in the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Just ask anyone where I come from, they’ll say
in a kind of historical chorus, We have no idea.
(3 October 2010)