Jesse Graves was raised in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, just north of Knoxville, where his German ancestor, Johannes Sebastian Graff, settled in the 1780s. He teaches writing and literature classes at East Tennessee State University, where he is Assistant Professor of English. His first poetry collection, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in 2011. He recently served as guest editor for a special issue of The Southern Quarterly on “The Poetry and Prose of Robert Morgan,” and is co-editor with William Wright and Paul Ruffin of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume III: Contemporary Appalachia. In summer 2011, Jesse will teach a week-long poetry class at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky.
The Wilderness Trail
Winter arrived in the night
and hung heavy in yellow pines.
No one knew it was coming,
so I woke up with expectations
of canned pineapples and toast,
a dark trudge to catch the schoolbus.
The morning had fallen white
and I went out to find animal prints,
a feathered tomahawk humming
in the belt loop of my blue jeans.
I had left the expedition and the outpost
to find what only Boone would recognize.
I walked past the barn and my father’s
David Brown tractor under the loft,
into the woods and back through time.
Wind twisted and I curled inside my jacket—
I looked around and saw nothing human,
nothing made, two long centuries elapsed.
Sparrows and jays skittered under the cedars,
and I followed a trail through the soft
underbrush, setting out for the far horizon,
two biscuits with bacon tucked in my pocket.
The long shadow of Cumberland Mountain
hiding the deep trace of Cumberland Gap.
Purple iris flower and the pitch-tailed mockingbird,
The names of our three distant presidents,
And, eventually, all ninety-five state counties.
I learned the cash crops, the first governor,
The course of every river that flows through,
And where to find the lost State of Franklin.
Heroes were known by a single word: Boone, Crockett,
Houston, Jackson, York.
I’ve taken on all their names,
Worn their accomplishments like buttons
On a shirt, imagined their battles and adventures,
Played them out as a child over the trails behind my house.
I spent whole summers searching for arrowheads,
Any sign of the Cherokee, the Chickasaw.
I brought the past inside me, carried it everywhere I’ve been,
Rode with it across the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico
Coursing my blood beneath tamaracks in the Vermont woods.
It guided me between gravestones of Taylor’s Grove Church,
The learning deeper in me than soil in the tread of my shoes.
There are many ways to study Tennessee History.
One of them is to sit on Malcolm Walker’s front porch
As late afternoon unspools across his yard,
And the hills of John Jess Lay hollow rise up around us.
Listen as the soft cadences of his 91-year old voice
Bring forth “Each Day I’ll Do a Golden Deed,”
The song “Sawmill” Dewey Ellis sang
At Ruble Johnson’s funeral, a great-uncle who died
when my grandmother was only sixteen years old.
History lives in the songs, stories held within the earth,
Most of it never written down,
The truest part is stored deep in the boards of old houses,
In the split rails of hundred year old fences,
Etched in the grain of handcut wood.
We turned the lake’s slow surface to bright spanners
With our underwater lures and orange-cap floaters.
Big Ellum, Lead Mine Bend, Capps’s Creek,
Artesian wellsprings behind the old house seat,
Flatwoods, Lost Creek, Palmer’s Junction,
Forks of the River, Mining Dump, Bridgetown.
We cast for bluegill, mostly, and hoped for bass,
Since half as many would make twice the catch—
Our goal was supper, but we rarely earned that keep,
My uncle and I. Though we slung our lines to the deep
Middle of Norris Lake, a hot afternoon on the shaded
Banks of a hidden cove was reward enough, our muddy
Shoes left in the bed of the truck while we waded the shore
Looking for arrowheads or fossil rocks. When we got bored
We propped the reels on forked sticks so Gerald could smoke
Or play Waylon and Willie as I sipped a warm bottle of Coke,
And rummaged the glove-box for places he’d been, matchbooks
From the Amarillo Armadillo, Flying J Truckstop, and Rook’s.
Those nights we fished until dark were better than a child’s
Christmas in Wales, to be eight, mid-summer, home in the wild.
Water Washing Away
Early summer, late afternoon,
sky stretching into its long recline,
the lighter blue blanching to white.
Our garden hose sprouts puddles
in the yard, and Chloe splashes through
them. She’s ten years old,
but for the moment I see her at half
that age, running under a sprinkler
in a seahorse swimsuit
the first summer we moved into the house,
her fear of water washing away,
such small feet tamping the ground.
I should make her shut off the faucet,
wasting water in a dry month,
driving up a dreadful utility bill,
but I’ll pay it off, I think to the wind,
with these silver coins the late sun
scatters in drops across the grass,
A fair price for the vision of a girl
who has warped the ancient spell of time,
who has turned back my eyes,
almost to her birth again, then into my own
fading childhood, rewinding years that even
the sun’s bright currency cannot purchase.