Hitchhiking in the Dying South
I have seen the morning spread over the fields
& I have walked on, trying to forget
how it seemed as if daybreak was founded
on the most fragile web of breath,
& I had blown it.
Then I thought it might not exist at all,
nor had it ever. That it was only the idea of breath
& the egrets asleep in sour-grass were the idea
of flight, & if I was to breathe in,
it would all just disappear.
I have seen the spotted toads at dusk
come up from the ditches after a rainstorm
& into the asphalt’s steam & I have seen them
crushed by lumber trucks, then lifted away
into the pines by the gathering crows.
I have felt the night quiver with heron’s wing
over the swamps, over wild pigs in a blackberry patch,
their snouts bloody & alive in the moonlight,
& I have walked on, dirty, alone, kicking to the grasses
the swollen bodies of possum, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, bobcat,
giving them no prayer, no peace-filled silence.
But that was long ago, when work was scarce
& meant thumbing my way to the tobacco plant
or the slaughterhouse, north up Highway 17
to Holly Ridge or down to Bulltail on 210,
either way I would be shoveling something until dusk,
something soft & warm & beyond me.
And I would be glad for it.
Walking with that forgotten gesture wavering
in the morning air, I felt that people
could come into the world in a place
they could not at first even name,
& move through it finally, like the dawn,
naming each thing until filled with a buoyancy,
a mist from the river’s empty rooms.
Thumb of autumn, thumb of locust, thumb of every kissed lip.
I have seen a cow die under the wheels
of a Cadillac going 60, & who’s to say
what the cow got from this?
Some would say a dignity, perhaps,
past the slaughterhouse
& the carcasses swimming the eaves.
Or was it a punishment for nudging open
the gate-latch, the driver of the car
in shock, mouthing cow, cow,
& the crows in the pines answering
with the kind of sympathy my foreman used
when one of his line-workers
cut off another finger in the shredder.
Son, at least you still got your arm.
It’s difficult to get this straight,
but there was a beauty to the sparks
that spread out under the car, under the cow,
as they went from flesh to asphalt to flesh again:
fireflies in the hollow of the hills:
a blanket of white petals from the tree of moon.
A brief & miniature dawn began,
there on a summer night in the South
I had come to love as part of myself,
the sparks clinging in the grass for a moment,
unbearably bright, a confused moth nuzzling up
to the reflection of a flame shining in
the cow’s one open eye.
Now that I think of it, there was maybe even
a beauty in the cow’s fat, white body, a peace
I would never know, as it took in the car,
lay down with it: calf soft: morning breath.
This peace had a body, it was caught up in the night,
made from night, there on the shoulder of a road
so endless even the stars shrugged it off
& took the sparks as one of their own
’Hitchhiking in the Dying South’ was first published in Blackbird, 2003, Vol. 2. No 1.
The poem is appearing is Sassafras after a request from the editor.
Joshua Poteat has published two books of poems, Ornithologies (Anhinga Poetry Prize, 2006), and Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World (VQR/University of Georgia Press, 2009), as well as two chapbooks, Meditations (Poetry Society of America, 2004) and For the Animal (Diagram/New Michigan Press, 2013). A chapbook, The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again), is forthcoming from Diode Editions, 2014.