Lifeblood by Rote


Three blue-distant hummocks mark southeast If you stand atop the neighborhood Imagining a compass rose Limned in ink against the sky.

Hung below their bellies is a dark, Horned buttress, clearer in its nearness. The closer hill looks clean against The wildness of its far-off brother,

Hunkered like a preacher with A prophet weeping at his back.

That’s LeConte, I tell my daughters, pointing, And there’s Chilhowee Mountain underneath, Hoping, as we chart our maps By fast-food joints and crumbling curbs,

We can decipher the legend of our place Writ in massif ribs and penned in stone— Left-hand turns at blue shale beds, Down the road past poplar groves—

Grasping our blood-country’s syntax Before weak memory smudges the lines.


The bluesman keened on six silver strings, Leaning in to the grange hall microphone, Belting liberation doctrines Torn from Moses’ backlog books:

We ain’t got but dirt floors, O, my darlin’, Shiverin’ in these Appalachian hills. Screaming, Glory, take my burdens! Dry hand-claps for an orchestra—

Twisting out a ghetto fire Plaited in my white man’s blood.

Long before the nation fixed her borders, Iron on paper, we lit on these shores, Indentured into debt for passage, Scratching out another’s living.

No one ever voiced the chains of dearth Binding all my mother’s peat-wrung people— Hands to hoes and feet to clay In corn and beans and cotton bolls.

Give me drought-choked seeds by handfuls; I will show you history’s sins.


Low-tier market coffee fills the mugs Chipped by six years of late-night handwashing; Dark rush bottom ladder back Chairs provide the creaking stage

Where my mother weaves the family saga Curious tale by curious southern tale: Mountain summer upbringings, Barefoot days with greens for supper,

A literature of comfort food Made of nothing scrounged from nothing.

Every clan reunion asks the questions: What new face will broach the room? Who has torn the mountains down In the landscape of whose heart?

We ungraft the branches of our tree; Legacies wilt through poverty-sown wrongs. Even then, we sang through chains; Bloodlines turned to means of grace.

Cup in hand, I hear the stories Beneath the half-remembered hills.

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