Elegy: Walking the Line
Every month or so, Sundays, we walked the line,
The limit and the boundary. Past the sweet gum
Superb above the cabin, along the wall-
Stones gathered from the level field nearby
When first we cleared it. (Angry bumblebees
Stung the two mules. They kicked. Thirteen, I ran.)
And then the field: thread-leaf maple, deciduous
Magnolia, hybrid broom, and, further down,
In light shade, one Franklinia Alatamaha
In solstice bloom, all white, most graciously.
On the sunnier slope, the wild plums that my mother
Later would make preserves of, to give to friends
Or sell, in autumn, with the foxgrape, quince,
Elderberry, and muscadine. Around
The granite overhang, moist den of foxes;
Gradually up a long hill, high in pine,
Park-like, years of dry needles on the ground,
And dogwood, slopes the settlers terraced; pine
We cut at Christmas, berries, hollies, anise,
And cones for sale in Mister
In town, below the Courthouse Square. James Haymore,
One of the two good teachers at Boys’ High,
Ironic and demanding, chemistry;
Mary Lou Culver taught us English: essays,
Plot summaries, outlines, meters, kinds of clauses
(Noun, adjective, and adverb, five at a time),
Written each day and then revised, and she
Up half the night to read them once again
Through her pince-nez, under a single lamp.
Across the road, on a steeper hill, the settlers
Set a house, unpainted, the porch fallen in,
The road a red clay strip without a bridge,
A shallow stream that liked to overflow.
Oliver Brand’s mules pulled our station wagon
Out of the gluey mire, earth’s rust. Then, here
And there, back from the road, the specimen
Shrubs and small trees my father planted, some
Taller than we were, some in bloom, some berried,
And some we still brought water to. We always
Paused at the weed-filled hole beside the beech
That, one year, brought forth beech nuts by the thousands,
A hole still reminiscent of the man
Chewing tobacco in among his whiskers
My father happened on, who, discovered, told
Of dreaming he should dig there for the gold
And promised to give half of what he found.
During the wars with Germany and Japan,
Descendents of the settlers, of Oliver Brand
And of that man built Flying Fortresses
For Lockheed, in Atlanta; now they build
Brick mansions in the woods they left, with lawns
To paved and lighted streets, azaleas, camellias
Blooming among the pines and tulip trees-
Mercedes Benz and Cadillac Republicans.
There was another stream further along
Divided through a marsh, lined by the fence
We stretched to posts with Mister Garner’s help
The time he needed cash for his son’s bail
And offered all his place. A noble spring
Under the oak root cooled his milk and butter.
He called me “honey,” working with us there
(My father bought three acres as a gift),
His wife pale, hair a country orange, voice
Uncanny, like a ghost’s, through the open door
Behind her, chickens scratching on the floor.
Barred Rocks, our chickens; one, a rooster, splendid
Sliver and grey, red comb and long sharp spurs,
Once chased Aunt Jennie as far as the daphne bed
The two big king snakes were familiars of.
My father’s dog would challenge him sometimes
To laughter and applause. Once, in Stone Mountain,
Travelers, stopped for gas, drove off with Smokey;
Angrily, grievingly, leaving his work, my father
Traced the car and found them way far south,
Had them arrested and, bringing Smokey home,
Was proud as Sherlock Holmes, and happier.
Above the spring, my sister’s cats, black Amy,
Grey Junior, down to meet us. The rose trees,
Domestic, Asiatic, my father’s favorites.
The bridge, marauding dragonflies, the bullfrog,
Camellias cracked and blackened by the freeze,
Bay tree, mimosa, mountain laurel, apple,
Monkey pine twenty feet high, banana shrub,
The owls’ tall pine curved like a flattened S.
The pump house Mort and I built block by block,
Smooth concrete floor, roof pale aluminum
Half-covered by a clematis, the pump
Thirty feet down the mountain’s granite foot.
Mort was the hired man sent to us by Fortune,
Childlike enough to lead us. He brought home,
Although he could not even drive a tractor,
Cheated, a worthless car, which we returned.
When, at the trial to garnishee his wages,
Frank Guess, the judge, Grandmother’s longtime neighbor,
Whose children my mother taught in Cradle Roll,
Heard Mort’s examination, he broke in
As if in disbelief on the bank’s attorneys:
“Gentlemen, must we continue this charade?”
Finally, past the compost heap, the garden,
Tomatoes and sweet corn for succotash,
Okra for frying, Kentucky Wonders, limas,
Cucumbers, squashes, leeks heaped round with soil,
Lavender, dill, parsley, and rosemary,
Tithonia and zinnias between the rows;
The greenhouse by the rock wall, used for cuttings
In late spring, frames to grow them strong for planting
Through winter into summer. Early one morning
Mort called out, lying helpless by the bridge.
His ashes we let drift where the magnolia
We planted as a stem divides the path
The others lie, too young, at Silver Hill,
Except my mother. Ninety-five, she lives
Three thousand miles away, beside the bare
Pacific, in rooms that overlook the Mission,
The Riviera, and the silver range
La Cumbre east. Magnolia grandiflora
And one druidic live oak guard the view.
Proudly around the walls, she shows her paintings
Of twenty years ago: the great oak’s arm
Extended, Zeuslike, straight and strong, wisteria
Tangled among the branches, amaryllis
Around the base; her cat, UC, at ease
In marigolds; the weeping cherry, pink
And white arms like a blessing to the blue
Bird feeder Mort made; cabin, scarlet sweet gum
Superb when tribes migrated north and south.
Alert, still quick of speech, a little blind,
Active, ready for laughter, open to fear,
Pity, and wonder that such things may be,
Some Sundays, I think, she must walk the line,
Aunt Jennie, too, if she were still alive,
And Eleanor, whose story is untold,
Their presences like muses, prompting me
In my small study, all listening to the sea,
All of one mind, the true posterity.