Of the Mulberry Family: an Arkansas Epilogue--by C.D. Wright
Of the Mulberry Family: an Arkansas Epilogue
One does not approach who one is by going back down there. One approaches who one is by going down. Down is not where. When what one needed, what one thought one most had to have was love. Wild and radiant. Only love. It did not matter where one was. There. Down was where it had to be gotten. At any cost. Not that anyone suspected it would cost more than one could afford. Not that anyone suspected it would cost more than what was offered. Not that it has ever been otherwise. Further down. There. Where: a tendency lingers among country people to say suspicioned instead of suspected.
It was not regional it was systemic. It was hell. There. Then. Down. No. It was sweet. It was nearly poetry, which in its pure state exudes a sweetness keener even than pain. If not Southern then gothic: grotesque, mysterious, desolate. Sepulchral, yes. It takes all. Then it takes off. Explanations don't help. Excuses don't count.
Mockingbird, you tell it differently every year:
She was never going to leave. There. Down. She had no intention of leaving. The hills. The crooked green rivers. The rutted brown roads. Smoke sleeving out of farmhouse chimneys. Collapsing barns. The mineral-streaked bluffs streaming with maidenhair. Railroad bridges in fog. Redbud, dogwood, wild plum and serviceberry in spring. Pronounced sahrvussberry. Horse apple by itself in a field. Pond by itself in a pasture. Alive. To love. To be loveable. To be loved. The geotropic life. Lived. Perceived. For the venation of one's own leaf.
If you take root you will grow. She had been told. He told her. The full-blown poet. The land surveyor. He had a calling. He had a living. Her roots had yet to outgrow a coffee can: student, poet-in-waiting, barmaid.
Some of you already know these books: The Singing Knives, Shade, Ladies from Hell, Field Talk, Arkansas Bench Stone, Constant Stranger, Crib Death, You, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Conditions Uncertain and Likely to Pass Away, The Light the Dead See. If not, do you believe me when I say you dont know what youre missing. If youre not young and crazy it may be too late. Maybe you were never that young, that nuts. Believe me when I say you are better off. Better to stroke the beast than to hit it/and forfeit the eleven stars of your youth.
Kicked back: in the transitory heaven of Pharoah Sanders records and blue ribbon beer. Talking carnally at a trestle table under a locust tree. The honey locust shedding freely. Driving around. Driving around in the truck. Poking around in the woods.
The surveyor and his catspaw. The poet and his follower. Poking around in the woods with a transit. He shot the lines. She held the plumb bob. Squatted in a stand of cedar to pee. Watch yourself: copperhead country. The sweet sachet of cedar and urine.
Mockingbird calling attention to one's vulnerable position.
On top of Markham Hill. Dug a little pit with the heel of his workboot and the prong of a church key. Church key, the ubiquitous ersatz for bottle opener. They were under the ample branches of the horse apple. Emptied his wool herringbone trousers of coins. Covered them up. There, he said. If you ever need money. This will get you in a double feature. Double feature, that's history.
She loved how he smelled, osage orange. But when he had not washed, he conceded that the goat got him. It could give you an instant headache.
Twin desks made from unstained doors on sawhorses. She smoked unfiltered, brown cigarettes. She had to drive to the mall to get the special cigarettes. He bought records. Books. She bought cigarettes. Books. He but lay his hand on the book and inhaled the contents. She underlined everything and retained next-to-nothing. She liked to go somewhere with a book, make herself small, and smoke.
She and the dance teacher smoked, Sylvia of the Balanchine extensions and candy-only diet. Bone-cold-cancer-reamed Sylvia. If smoke were not permitted, she and Sylvia didn't bother going in. He tolerated secondhand smoke. He didn't give a scintilla for a crowd.
Maclura pomifera: Occurs as a single tree in more or less open situations in mountainous regions...
He read the living and the dead. She read the dead. He read the French, the Italian, the Americans. She read the French, the Russians, the Americans. They were in the South, so to speak. The Upper South. When you think about it, his beautiful sepulchral language, was her first living poetry: Because none of you know what you want follow me/ because I'm not going anywhere/ I'll just bleed so the stars can have something dark to shine in. The poet wrote. Small wonder. First blasted, living, everloving poetry. Horses fuck inside me and a river makes a bend in my shoulder. No goddamned wonder.
Educated by the Benedictines of Paris (Arkansas) and the levee hands of Snow Lake (Arkansas). Earned no academic degrees, taught at no college. Nor did he give public readings. In the main, he avoided cities. Published with obscure presses. Started an obscure press, Lost Roads.
Save for placing 4th in 1958, in a contest sponsored by the 9th District Tennessee Federation of Womens Clubs, he went unhonored.
When the sun shone quote unquote regular again, he hung the herringbones up by their suspenders and donned light khaki; leathered up the same workboots year round. A big head of girly curls, a long torso and short legs. The intimation of a satyr.
She adopted war fatigues and unflattering flannel shirts. Public-health glasses. A lash of tawny, horsey hair. She was split-rail thin but for the breasts, cream beaten with wine. Nails chewed beyond repair. The intimation of a maenad.
Foreign films screened in the student union. Every Sunday night. They feasted: Children in Paradise, Weekend, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Romantic Englishwoman, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Lucia, Brief Vacation, Rashomon, The Conformist, The Apu Trilogy, The Battle of Algiers, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Shame. It was heavy fare.
Fruit globular, 2-5 inches in diameter, greenish yellow or yellow, somewhat resembling a large, rough orange, fragrant...
She took classes: mime, saxophone, poetry, ballet. Doing pliés she was visited by the residual scent of their constant screwing.
Sap like that of rest of tree, milky and sticky...
She and her coruscating redheaded friend practiced the beautiful figure series in the old gymnasium. The studies Etienne Decroux created for Jean-Louis Barrault: Children of Paradise.
She waited tables. All the young women waited on the young men. Down. There. But she was perfectly sorry at it. Sullen. Slow. Forgetful. Untipped. Every other night she janitored in the student union while her co-worker talked to her inaudibly, without stopping, over the institutional vacumn cleaners.
He called it bodark, from bois d'arc, wood of the arches. When the trees rained arrows on the French searching for the Vermilion Sea.
Imagined running a bait shop. She liked to be on the river, and one could foresee reading there with few interruptions. In a bait shop. Lulled by riverwater. Maybe she would write something. By and by.
Imagined being caretaker for the civil war cemetery. Crosses not tended by living kin, crosses whose numbers would not increase.
The civil war cemetery was in the black neighborhood. It was different from the college, different from the mall and different from her hometown. Her white-on-white hometown. The jukebox was better in the black bar than the college bar, and she liked to sit in the highbacked wooden booths shamelessly looking at faces and listening in. The talk by itself inebriated. Maybe she could write something. By and by.
There are poems in his published collections dating from 1957 when Frank was preposterously nine years old. The work is that continuous. See YOU: "The Wolves," and "The Burial Ship."
Couldn't be a surveyor. Like him. Couldn't fathom the math. Couldn't go where snakes slept, slithered and multiplied.
Shut up, mockingbird.
More commonly known as the Osage-orange or mock orange...
Branching erect on young trees; vigorous branches bear a straight stout thorn about one inch long at each node...
Why it takes so Christly and beastly long to learn to walk upright. The hands, the distances, the tools, the eyes one wears out scrabbling through the archeology of one's shifting layers before the book one wanted to read, the very book that would set one on one's two flat feet pushes to the surface. Branching erect....
The book that could set one's life in inexorable, joyful motion.
Headed in the right direction. As Miss Toklas was want to say of Miss Stein's driving--she goes forward admirably, she does not go backward successfully--that seemed the way to go. Straight and stout....
Going down. Always entails going. Down. There. To the woeful telos of that love. The love for, face it, the already-spoken-for, the now seventeen-years-amouldering poet.
It was a long time ago. It would take a very long time to fell.
Wood heavy (48 pounds per cubic foot), exceedingly hard, strong, tough...
Everyone who met him stirred to his vision.
I guess you couldn't help but like him, her father's taciturn ruling. How the entire mess must have pained them. The lenient, upright parents. Watching her be whelmed. For love only love. Radiant, wild, and terminal. Knowing he was spoken for. Not interfering. Not expecting anything good to come of it. Not foreseeing the worst.
Imagined the poet astraddle a cane-bottom chair staring at the unvarnished planes of floor. An ensemble of women performing the shadow dance at his back.
The hide is clean with me, the poet's guarantee. Huh?
The centrifugal field of lies ever-expanding. A veritable seiche of lies. In a few forevers they would all be gnawing the roots of dandelions, but in this one he alone would be dead, and there would be no actual cauldron to scour the hide.
Nor would this ever be actually over.
Nor would she ever be the only soul, afterwards, to experience frequent sightings of the now seventeen-years-amouldering.
To dream sightings. Arriving late, impossibly to her nonexistent sixteenth birthday party, dressed for surveying. But not getting out of the cab of his truck, slumped instead over the wheel. Not stirring. Living. Loving. The radio in the cab moaning "Wild Horses."
Nor the sole survivor to fondle the few things the poet touched that she had kept. Who learned to part with them, the fondled things, as they wore out, by force of will.
Not the only one to remove the human figures whose forms disrupted the view. To make of her foes, ciphers. And of those ciphers, foes. Forcibly.
Nor to paper over the errors, the failures, the sins which no brace of doves, no blood of the lamb could ever remit. To all but wear the beloved's foreskin as wedding ring. To let another existential being be her whole actual world. And so on and so forth. Her kind. Down. There. Then. We were expert at acts of self-delusion and distortion.
The mockingbird has a million licks. At least one poor yodeler doesn't have to re-learn the same-old saw every sad-ass spring.
Yet he acquired a sizable, devoted readership in his lifetime. It would be unwarranted to think his reputation profited by his premature death. On the contrary, the work suffered and to some degree remains tainted on this account because death was his subject. He has rightly been called one of its great voices.
It was there. Then. Down. Where this very instant a domestic artifact of little consequence insists on poking out, on being lit up:
The bed belonged to her grandmother. It was funky. A crudely scrolled two-tone veneered headboard. A set of springs not even boxed. A bathetic mattress. How many times had she wet her grandmother's cotton gown sleeping alongside her grandmother's passive body.
When sleeping with the grandmother, even in the most hateful of winters, the window was propped up with a yardstick. The hammer nested in its own cold light under the pillow. The grandmother would pray, Now honey, don't make a lake. And she would peep, See you in the morning grandma. To which the grandmother would pray, Lord willing and the crick don't rise. And in the morning, the grandmother would ruefully bear witness to her soaking side, the risen crick.
How many times would she ladle her poet's gorgeous body in the cavity of their hand-me-down bed.
The other grandmother called it rabbit hedge, had a small one in her yard but considered it a nuisance, too much trouble to fell, the wood so hard.
She herself knew it as horse apple. She often heard it called that. But she didn't think horses ate them. But what did she know about horses. One by the name of Duke lived on Markham Hill.
The bed with the white candlewick spread.... She remembered the candlewick bedspread. The one that would later be used to rake the leaves into, wrap around the borrowed mower, shroud the cat.
The last male cat, Bowtie, hit-and-run-down in her absence. When she returned she opened the top of the refrigerator to its cadaver. He explained that he thought she would want to see him before he buried him. Later he told her he took care of it. Next she discovered the thawing remains of Bowtie in the garbage can in a paper sack. She went back in the house for the bedspread. Thinking no further than death wanted a winding cloth.
For once she did not bother to confront him. She should have buried her own star-crossed pet.
Flowers of two kinds borne of different trees...male in an elongated cluster, female in a round ball
When the South was the South and not the same. Not the same as up here or out there or yonder. When: she was learning who she was. Loveable. Unloveable. Loved. Unloved. Loving. Beginning to walk upright. Loving it.
Going back in the summer is preferred to winter. When it's all leafed out. Grown over. Winter is bald. The hawks are seen as easily as they see us. We see the new houses on the denuded hills. The hawks see the denuded hills beyond the houses, where the newer ones will be. The hawks see the future too clearly. They are nowhere in it.
durable wood prized for longbows; known by hunters as bow wood
Going back is not the same as not going back. Going back is not the same as not going off to begin with. We leave to be who we will become. We go back to see who we are. We are no less than our struggle or that of our foes, even those we would make ciphers.
Who died there. Who is dying. Who forfeited a once-perfect breast. Whose once-lovely daughter fell asleep with a desolate cigarette. Whose body wears a bag to pee in. Who is a hundred per cent queer now. Who knew it all along. Whose youngest son drowned in their stupid, bean-shaped pool. Who got born again. Who made a pile of money gypping people out of their savings. Who was a party switcher. Who came home from the city to help his widower father fend. Who is left. Who left.
Whose heartwood yields a dye comparable to fustic.
Who shot himself to death in her paternal grandmother's bed. With a target pistol. Who ran in the room to straddle the body, pump the dead poet's chest. Who ran out the door. Who called the police.
Who opened their doors to the mourners. Who was wedded to whom the same afternoon on Petit Jean Mountain.
Who photographed the last blaze rose in the rented yard.
She remembers. She misremembers. She disremembers. Like everyone.
She goes back. She doesn't go down. There. Anymore. It is not poetry. It smells of mortality. Sepulchral.
And here is the peeling rent house by the ravine. This is the ravine where she threw the telephone receiver to make herself stop calling and calling when one was there and the other was not.
This is where everyone who heard, who knew or thought they knew, or felt as if they had known, entered a separate landscape of pain and loneliness. Everyone came and stood apart like a boat in a field. Then came the young men in uniforms. One young woman in uniform. And the poet was covered, rather he was bagged, tagged and taken away. Very little blood. Only powder burns. No more sound.
And everyone who heard, gradually, they came too and sat on the stoop or stood in the garden more or less motionless. Photographs were taken of the last blaze rose. People who didn't like each other, who had never liked each other, felt a burning love. Backs were patted and the lady cat was stroked. Old stories got told. Everyone drank until they went to sleep wherever they folded over. And on the weekend came the musicians, out of the Delta and over the mountains in the beat-up bus.
The memory of it is very hard. It goes down. There. Geotropic. It would take a long time to fell. It is not poetry. It is a scratched, repetitive record of loving. Unloving. Losing. Leaving.
Maclura pomifera: The largest specimen on record was a sixty footer. Over. In Hickory Plains, Prairie County. The soil wouldn't raise one that tall. In the Ozarks.
Over here is the periphery. From whence you came. Can you describe it. In detail. What you remember is moving. Backward. You do not see the beginning. Words scumble the view.
Here is the center of your enterprise. Your life. Almost miraculously, without a sound, it grew up around you protective and full. You abide in it. Volatile yet alive. Living. Loving. Loved. For the venation of one's own leaf. Into its plenary.
Back there. Down. When. Is the ruinous forever. Yearning for perfection.
Sometimes in our sleep we touch
The body of another woman
And we wake up
And we know the first nights
With summer visitors
In the three storied house of our childhood.
Whatever we remember,
The darkest hair being brushed
In front of the darkest mirror
In the darkest room.
by CD Wright. Conjunctions, (#28, Tributes, fall 1997) Material on the horse apple quoted and adapted from Trees of Arkansas by Dwight M. Moore, third revised edition. Arkansas Forestry Commission Little Rock, Ark l972
Lines of poetry are from YOU and The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You
The tribute is to the poet Frank Stanford, Aug 1, 1948-June 3, 1978.
Return to C.D. Wright