“This is how the era began / this is how it turned.” —Serhiy Zhadan
Then today, after all those starlit bike rides
and pushing my daughter’s cranky old stroller
over the curb, her new eyes lit for layers
on down, like water, clean and quaking, I realized
that it was at this intersection, creek bottom
covered up by concrete, interstate
snaking above, that a child of our neighborhood
shot a man in the head at that Holiday Inn,
a baby in the backseat spattered with blood.
The empty streets are wide, having been scraped clean
of frame houses and soda counters and everyone moved
to the projects or pauper fields too far away to visit.
This asphalt, that blank sky. At the park (used to be the dump)
the elms are on the very edge of budding.
Where You Come from Is Gone aunt She once told me the only poem she ever wrote was about squatting under the porch and passing a leaf through the bands of light let in by a gap in the boards. She told me to read Wise Blood and pay attention to the glasses. My first boyfriend said he’d never seen someone smoke so much: she lit one with another, which in turn lit another. Which is why upholstery steeped in chain-smoker’s grief will always make me think someone is listening. A child, prone to slapping her sisters, prone to seeing angels in the trees, hides in the cool dust-space of a porch that has itself turned to dust. There is a leaf. There is a hand. There is a band of light.
Hanging Clothes, Last Day of June
A wintergreen vine climbs the clothes line.
The cat pads the margins of the yard,
where Rosa Rugosa and mock orange marry,
hairy stems twining tired flowers.
The neighbor lady tells me she has a flap
in her stomach that won’t stay shut.
When she turns to leave, I see how
the back of her gown is stained.
Her dryer vent used to light the evening air
with fabric softener’s scent,
but these days, it seems, something cries
out to me from the ground if I listen.
The weeds grow tall between our houses.
Pokeberries heavy with poison bend
thick red stems, bitter leaves
getting bigger in the heat of the day.
I stretch a wet towel out with clothes pins.
The thunderstorms warned about since morning
will turn to steady rain. July will arrive
with wet skin, the cuckoo singing her in.
As we drove home through the projects
(inward-facing brick, dust-scudded curbs)
deer grazed unmarked graves in the cemetery
across the street, the land abandoned for years.
Winter’s thin light flowed over their flanks
as first we saw two, then three, then eight.
They wavered between the bars of slender trees,
necks stretched down to rye grass still improbably green,
planted by Boy Scouts last season.
One deer watched, narrow head lifted
to our scent, our movement.
The rest concentrated only on eating
against the ice that will lick the thicket
where they bed down tonight—somewhere
in sparse wood between landfill and interstate.
We stopped to see them flicker, then turned
the car around in a cul-de-sac for another look.
Three children perched on an electrical box,
the last sun to shine that day
a corona around their hooded heads.
They wore Christmas coats still bright as berries
or the bluebirds who now stay with us in winter.
They laughed as we passed, then got on with their game
while the deer and the dead and the good in this world rang.
Limbatus (Black-Edged) Up against the slough bank black tip sharks are spawning, meat cleaver bodies pink and grey, working back and forth between breakers— speckled swimming crabs a coppery scent, hibiscus-like in their brains. On shore, one truck flies a Rebel flag and a banner with the coiled snake, both damp in dead wind. Hog fish, mullet, a croaker grunting in the hand while a barbed hook is torn from its bony white jaw: all baitfish are given to a wind-whipped child, who plays cruel games with them in a five-gallon bucket. When a shark snags a line, we all stand to see it fight the foam, the air, the men. Then the foot is on its back, then the pliers pull the lure out, the black eyes’ blank stare belying the mystery of their vision, which is said to be good as ours.
I would like to think these are poems about my “filthy, dirty South,” to quote the band Rising Appalachia. My lineation, imagery, and sound aspires to somehow be like blood harmony, like the voices of the sister singers of Rising Appalachia. I hope these poems are regional as hell. I hope they still have fish guts and cinders in them. They are my love song to the beauty I have found living where the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains end. Or begin, depending on your perspective.
I come from a Virginia Piedmont mill town decimated by NAFTA. Before that, my mother’s people left their mountain land for the promise of cash money in non-union mills. My mother was a nurse and my dad is still a plumber. He surf fishes Cape Point, North Carolina and southward in the Outer Banks. He just recently stopped wearing jeans and work boots on the beach. I had an aunt who died a few years ago who read Flannery O’Connor and once took a class from David Huddle. She started out early on, confusing and enchanting me with words. She named the trees for me. She taught me the difference between creeks and branches.
I have lived in Roanoke City for almost twenty years. I will be leaving soon, as part of my refusal to claim an inheritance of art. I have given up because being poor is just fucking exhausting. But it’s been painful to pry myself from my particular mountain coves, from my adopted city where the grand clank of mating trains at Shaffer’s Crossing can be heard through my springtime window screens. If I pray, it is to the interstate’s swell that I can hear as I write this, two blocks from my house.
I’m poor. My neighbors are poor. I listen for ballads and blues on my city streets. A local surgeon botched my neighbor’s stomach surgery. For years she worked every day at a local cafeteria. And then she could not any more. And then she lost her house to the bank. Today is the first day of July, which, according to an old song, is when the cuckoo starts to sing. We don’t have cuckoos in this country, but I first heard that song on a Doc Watson album and would like to think it’s possible to finger-pick a poem.
They call the projects near my house “The Bricks.” The tennis courts have been chained closed for years and the crab grass is pushing up through cracks in the courts, but we still have the Washington Park Pool, where my daughter has learned to dive and boys bend the board half-way down to the water as they fling themselves skyward in flips.
The railroad and the interstate divide Roanoke into four quadrants. The interstate, as in so many American cities, was routed through a large and vibrant African-American neighborhood. Then they built a Coke plant and a Civic Center over what was once an intricate neighborhood grid. Over twenty churches were torn down and graves were relocated far from where any relatives of the deceased lived. I live at the edge of where these ghosts must live. I think they are trying tell white America something.
Annie Woodford’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review, among others. She has been the recipient of the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. Her first book of poetry is forthcoming from Groundhog Poetry Press.