Terry Blackhawk

To Sing, in Dixie


A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live.

                                                                    —Walt Whitman

Red clay clotted our shoes, rain eroded the soil.
Nothing would grow for us in Dixie.

We did not belong, yet there we were:
a northern family sent in the Fifties to Dixie.

Because in first grade, in Cambridge, I loved a black boy—
Roland, I told my new classmates in Dixie—

the millworkers’ children would not play with me. I lined up
pebbles in the playground that entire year in second grade in Dixie.

But then Earo comforted me. Joseph helped me find a new dog.
I remember their warmth, the kindness of black folks in Dixie.

In seventh grade, Mr. Light wore terrible ties, arranged
our desks to match the Stars and Bars of Dixie.

Choked raspberries, roses, ornamental trees—a garden
overgrown since the Civil War was my playground in Dixie.

Across the road was an antebellum mansion. Sherman slept there.
Had nonchalant planters roamed my woods in Dixie?

Oh Walt, cataloguer of farmers, mechanics, artists, gentlemen
for planters why not say slavers and name the scourge of Dixie?

In ninth grade, I argued with classmates about the old South,
but in how many ways was I infected by Dixie?

How to tell the land from the blood that ran through it?
Spring dogwoods are lovely in Dixie.

“You would still be who you are,” my mother said,
when I wondered—what if I had been born into Dixie?

I watched the Klan on TV, Mamie Till’s grief. I remember
numbness, my fear and confusion in Dixie.

In tenth grade Latin the whole class sang, “Volum esse
in terra gossypi.” It was the Land of Cotton. It was Dixie.

Whitman wanted to soothe both sides, with cornets and drums
…to beat and pound for the victor, the slain in Dixie.

But the war rages on: Tamir, Sandra, Trayvon...
Thousands gone—Terry, you cannot breathe—let alone sing in Dixie.

 

The Extinct Fresh Water Mussels of the Detroit River

for Kathryne Lindberg (1951–2010)

These are gone: the deer–toe maple leaf, the fat
mucket, the snuffbox, the rainbow shell. Here, still,

the rusted manhole cover and the chipping paint,
the lights and arches of the elegant bridge,

all coated no doubt then in ice. Here the breeze,
here the freighters but not the car. Quiet as it’s kept,

it’s no secret the keys were left in the ignition.

Absence makes the fond heart wander, the mind
meander, the river swallow its flow—

the self–same river, the self–same self, even the one
that knew better, the self that knew better

than to pick up a phony ten–dollar bill folded
to disguise some evangelical come–hither.

Come hither, said the bridge.

Little earwig mussel, pimpleback, northern riffle shell,
something lacy yet along the rim.

In the print gallery a dry–point fox in outline
(Running Fox, R. Sintemi, Germany, 1944) floats
as if on the surface of a river, water swelling upward
on the verge of breaking up its lines—

Did you float, dear bat–out–of–hell, dear gnashing teeth—
the pointed ears, the flowing tail outlined on water not water,

on paper not paper, on the not–water before there only was

water, where we are floating now, as over a great uncertainty,
a mirroring surface that hides as much as it reveals—
No more rayed bean, purple warty back. O fragile paper shell
Where was the artist in 1944? What did he do in 1939?

You would have wanted to know.

 

The Ivory Gull Under the Bridge Over the Flint River

The insignificant is as big to me as any.
                                                                         —Walt Whitman

“Near threatened"—“accidental”—the gull
winged, meandered its ivory way
thousands of miles from the Arctic here
to Flint, Michigan, where it sat on
the dam’s spillway, insignificant
yet as big to us as an omen.
Hundreds flocked to photograph, pluck its
glimmering name from the slimy dark
concrete where the poisoned water flows.

No less than the journey–work of stars,
bright migrant I’m still yearning to see—
or one like it: a razor–billed auk
or snowy owl, the pristine ice fields
they hail from receding now while all
the bird–whiles I’ve savored shimmer in
memory and grief against this bleak                         
industrial stage my friend captured
on film, the bird later found dead there.

Sibley: “The one pure white gull, plumage
dazzlingly white, often very tame.
Voice, a mewing, high whistle strongly
descending.” Am I wrong to think of
Eurydice at Hades’ throne, bird
as halcyon respite? Great monsters
are lying low. In vain the buzzard
houses herself with the sky. Never
mind the sickened children of the town.

Note: The italicized lines are from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Section 31. “Bird–while,” the title of a recent poetry collection by Keith Taylor, is a term coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson to define the time one has to observe a bird on a branch before it flies off to somewhere else.

 

Noon in a Corner Café: The Sign

We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
                                                                                                          — 2 Corinthians 4: 18

Not the angled
                              umbrella           soft
conversation from a nearby table
                                             mutterings by the door…

Nor the mild air, a hibiscus
               there…   or there, but something
closer.
                                            Noon now and its
rattle
                               cups, traffic, taxis,
mopeds, their signature sounds.

                And what of
                                             the millions of hands
breaths, molecules
that have encountered
                                my own.

                                               These stones
outlast us, pages
                              picked up by

the breeze can say almost

anything, landing the way sunset
                               falls over a pond

in the still woods, or over a shore,
                              the one with a low dune

and a boy draping himself across it

in rapt abandonment to mist and sand
                                              and tide.

Call me mist dizzy       the palpable…in its place

                              One degree away.
Or another.

The sign
for infinity is a figure eight on its side.

                              She called it noon
timeless palindrome, eternal place-
               holder—set its face-
               to-face no
                              as a hinge    midway
down her lines where it would cast no
                                             shadow.

                                             Her room
looking west and south,
a modest corner, a room like any other, sun through the rippled glass
                                                                                         the white dress
in its place          the moment
                               we walk through the impalpable door.

Note: …the palpable in its place is from “Song of Myself,” Section 16. According to Cynthia Griffin Wolff (Emily Dickinson, Knopf, 1986) the word noon, as both zero hour and eternity—a palindromic word of no’s that has no beginning and no end—was key to “Dickinson’s achievement of a fusion of infinity and nothingness.” Precisely centered at the midpoint of over half a dozen poems, noon “serves the function of a sign created not by God but by the poet.”


Terry Blackhawk is a Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellow and blogger for Detroit Huffington Post. Her seven volumes of poetry include Escape Artist, winner of the 2003 John Ciardi Prize, and The Whisk & Whir of Wings, a recent chapbook from Ridgeway Press. She has poems in many journals and anthologies and online at Solstice, The Collagist, Verse Daily and elsewhere.