Shall I conduct you to those buried days?
We’ll forge a trace through long-abandoned ways
past tumbled, rotten barns and slattern shacks
in piney woods by gritty railroad tracks.
We’ll follow tarry roads that lure us on
through shimmering pools (at every step withdrawn)
into a time when our infant eyes were wide
to all the treasures there. Fortune’s tide
had not yet tumbled us upon this shore,
scrubbed us down and scoured away our core.
Come past brambles and the stunted trees
that straggle in the soil of ancient seas.
Wade cotton fields washed brown in summer rain;
evade the rattler coiled within the cane.
Nothing here to jog your memory?
Then wring your hem and come with me
past yards where hens and sentinel mongrels doze
beneath the porch, and toddlers, their only clothes
cotton shirts or shifts, are sent to play
with warnings not to pet strange dogs or stray
barefoot in pools of rain where hookworms lurk,
or so it’s said. In such a land could work
surpass the toil of lowly beast? The ant lion
have less honor than some pinched-face scion
of darkling folk who toss on pallet beds
in throbbing nights, sheets tented over heads
within this haunt of dread anopheles,
where memories whisper still of swamp disease?
And still there’s more: The morning water pails
lugged slopping through a frosted yard; the wails
of siblings bathed before an iron stove
red hot with fat wood from the piney grove;
the iron beds and threadbare sheets, the scratch
of blankets with an army stamp; mismatch
of well chipped Sunday plate; unpainted sheds
of half-moon doors and cavernous seats, threads
of spiders crouched below; a chamber pot
wafting liquid night soil smells; that slimy spot
whereon dish water mixes in the yard
with scraps that scrawny poultry disregard.
Ah yes, such scenes are easy to despise
when gazed upon through unaccustomed eyes.
What beauty could one find in such a place,
philosophy or creed or simple grace?
Not that you could speak aloud the thought
whispering in your mind. This crude onslaught,
this splash of ordure on our tidied world,
you only know to meet with lips tight curled
around that smirky, frozen little smile
that says so well: you may play time’s exile
if you wish, mime the grubby outcast
in our midst, but I have no such past.
And if this all were true, just as you say,
what has that to do with life today?
Why spoon about in ancient, settled dust
for artifacts far better left to rust?
And I, sadder now, if not yet wise,
can see that nothing of my tale applies
to you, sleek princeling of a sated age.
Not for me the laurel crown of sage
who seeks to pry away time’s carapace
and free the stench of squalor and ill grace
within the weeds of this primordial ground
we tend no better than a burial mound.
Who resurrects the past is just a fool
splashing in a fetid, primal pool.
This tale of shabby house and pallet beds,
calloused feet and faded cotton spreads
cannot be told—nor that when moonlight shines,
I hear the siren voices of the pines.