Clyde Kessler has always lived in southwestern Virginia. He is a regional editor for Virginia Birds, a publication of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and serves as editor of a quarterly bulletin for the Blue Ridge Discovery Center, a history and natural history education organization with projects in schools in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Clyde lives in Radford, Virginia, where he helps edit and write three Blue Ridge Discovery Center blogs.
A fool twangs a banjo with no strings.
—A Proverb from the Storms—
Twangs it like an island skull,
eroding while skimming the river,
says old man Lewis Mote, skint
by words. Saves the house by
burning the rooms. Leaves each
child when it’s born, knows music
like a wheel furrowed in the cane.
Hates the April orchard, knows
it sprouts firewood, not peaches.
Hungers where the banjo chords
have calloused his dreams. Wants
to fly a coal mine backwards to hell,
knows the work kills the lungs
but keeps working. Hungers while
the banjo strings break and break.
My name is scarred on five beech trees,
four in my own woods, and one in wilderness
calm as a March violet hunkered on rocks.
I carved them in with a stolen knife.
It was Hackle Creek and broken fence
taught the knife my name, dreamt steel one day
to fifty-seven winters, the scars most closed,
and one first name winking above a knot.
Father said work, so I thieved along best
from town folk, found lovers once, took purse
and wallet while they swooned their fool love;
took this wild knife, a whittler, stabber, rust.
Luck might snitch my early heaven
from a drunkard's banjo whine,
might shoot my dirty veins with gold.
I watch prison sliding parolees
like bent coins, like rusty fence wire
curling in a creek flood, dangling folks.
Said a wall was half in my head,
and half knocked against it, fluttering
some June bugs like a song.
I might be fate's old dog kenneled mean.
Watch my mountain spring burning loose,
watch me jail it gone, the same blind dog.
He was stabbed by his job
then hauled away like a sparrow
flogging glass. He could work poor
staring at fish heads, or dreaming
his grampa's farm with its winter wheat,
now a mall where he might have to work,
and where he could see five movies
by midnight, and set his mind on fire
with some whiskey in his coat,
and toast his best boss to China,
that sarcastic down turn of a man,
sober enough to baptize with stones.
(“Mason Mote” first appeared in Grab-a-Nickel, 46.9, 2008-2009. Used by permission.)
Clouds steal my brother from the mall.
He's crooked enough there, guarding
his anger. But now he wanders off catlike
musing in a strange letter about sunlit cars
crowding his mind, and how he stands there
beside those store-lit manikins aping home
through sunglasses as if they know names
and make more money, and want his wallet
to burn in his coat pocket. Snow storms
swaddle the mountain roads, snow plows
sink into the mall parking lot. Mason began
to shake his fist at everybody, even our daddy
who is waiting all day a much thinner ghost
while he eats a few cashews on a mall bench,
and tries to stare Mason down, tries not to see
his oldest boy cluttered with ice near Asheville.