Jesse Graves


Life there seemed never to change,
except around the edges of the yard
where leaves sprouted, changed colors,
fell blithely away, then started all over again.

Then my grandfather died, who drove
his shaky truck around selling orchard trees,
then my uncle Cotton died, who taught
me lonely old songs on his homemade guitar.

I watched my parents carry the sodden 
weight of their sadness for a time,
finally returning to their regular lives,
without a father, without a favorite uncle.

And then I was different, sitting alone 
on the raft of being twelve years old,
wanting something but not knowing what,
floating away from the unchanging life.

Tiny metal cars left in boxes, plastic soldiers
untouched for weeks, then for months, 
childhood becoming a song I had forgotten 
the words to, a tune I could no longer carry. 



City music, serenade of flashing light,
fast-turning wheel, everyday action,
familiar as other sharp edges, ringing 
like a blue jay’s squeal on repeat-play.  
I heard it so seldom in childhood
that I cannot unlearn the tightening
muscles, pulling myself in toward 
the core, the still point from which 
I can cup hand to ear, determine
where the terrible thing takes place.
If I heard the blare, the pain was personal—
it was happening to someone I knew, 
some neighbor whose heart seized,
or uncle whose thigh was torn loose
from bone by a slipping saw-blade.
We lived so far out that only a slow
emergency waited for help, siren song
more often eulogy than cavalry call. 



Morning emerges pink as a watermelon rind,
like the night has sucked some essential blood
from it, morning of delicate constitution,

singe of early light against rising blue mist.
Elsewhere there is destruction upon the land,
hatchet work of mass energy production, 

elsewhere woodland cathedrals are stripped
of their white oak spires, wracked
by the terrible lurching blades of industry.

But not here, not yet, one side-pocket 
of history, channel through which money
sluiced toward the hardly touched West,

where the American future awaited,
the emerald that is one sun-streaked corner
of Cumberland Mountain remains untouched.


Jesse Graves is author of Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine (Texas Review Press, 2011) which won the Weatherford Award in Poetry and the Book of the Year Award in Poetry from the Appalachian Writers’ Association. He was also awarded the 2013 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award from Morehead State University and a 2012 Denny C. Plattner Award from Appalachian Heritage. He is co-editor of three volumes of The Southern Poetry Anthology, and of the forthcoming Complete Poems of James Agee and Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Holston. His second book of poems, Basin Ghosts (Texas Review Press, 2014), also won the Weatherford Award in Poetry. Other work appears in recent issues of Prairie Schooner, Georgia Review, and Missouri Review Online, and is forthcoming in Blackbird, Southern Poetry Review, and Carolina Quarterly. Jesse’s work has been recognized with the 2014 Phillip H. Freund Award in Creative Writing from Cornell University and the James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South for 2015 from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He is Associate Professor of English at East Tennessee State University.


return to poetry                 home