E. B.

by R. T. Smith

           Emily Brontë, passion’s candle
but inclined to excess of brevity –
cliff and heath, ledge and rootsnarl, the human heart,
the human heat, death, stormwood and hedgegnarl. . . .

Rossetti said vis-a-vis the novel, The action
is laid in hell, with English names.
      Half Irish, of course, a whole pride of them
scribbling away, less pie than porridge,
a minister’s ken,
Emily woolgathering alone in love with crag and moss,
ghost lanterns in the mist, broken stones, the roe
deer, her life sparse, Spartan, terse,
yet tender, though prone to explosion.

Swooning in private, in thrall to the snarl
of rude speech:         yah’ll
niver mend o’ yer ill ways, but goa raight to t’ devil,
                      like yer mather afore ye!

And ravished by the written word.

An apple fallen into orchard grass
withers, harbors a wasp, her shivering song.
Death is not the sharpest sting.

Her sister said Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop.
Said as well:          Our Emily is a solitude-loving raven.
In all weathers, she worked.

Not meek, but in silence, that music, that gift.
Miss Dickinson thought her verse scandalous but asked
that Brontë’s stanzas “No Coward Is My Soul”
        be recited at her grave.
Brontë, from the a Greek root –  thunder.

Thrift and energy, her black hours on the moors
were joyous, perhaps, the rogue orchid,
the owls and hawks. Inebriate of air.

She’d savor the occasional nature morte:
a heap of dead rabbits in the bracken
or a plow horse severed from his misery, leg snapped
by a hidden pit        the musket barrel close by its ear
          after deadfall, snow-spit, the light going but not gone.

Thrushcross Grange, and wind like a scythe.
Gnasher’s growl, Juno’s glare, the badger’s hiss
and weeping in shadows.  Noctilucent, her
glee was pure mystery.

Was it a broken heart or consumption, that imp within?
Death loves a shining mark.
She believed the clan’s water source was runoff
from the cold church’s boneyard.
A harrowing cough.

From whence these monsters emerged?  Like Regina
        to her daughter: Dear Mary Flannery, Misguided
Scribe, from whereabouts did you summon
those foul people in your stories?  We have no
such connections.  Kindred sisters, the two wordwrights,
both seen as spinsters
and set upon, when young, by dogs.

The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky.
Stench of a snuffed wick wisping.
The child sleeping in the path of the scythe.
Who will guess the temper of her dreams
or heed the stifled cry?

          A deathbed wish: If
you will send for a doctor, I will perhaps see him now.
Too late by months, by many faded moons.

A single novel, a sheaf of angular poems,
lost fables of a conjured kingdom.  Call it tragic?
Fierce in isolation.  Too discreet?  Too thrifty?  Just
thirty at the end (a week before Christmas).  Black frost.
Heath and hare-bells or the quiet earth,

          a coffin

Back In Alabama

by R. T. Smith

Throwing horseshoes alone, I ponder local history:
Jackson’s ruffians at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa
softened the stout log stockade with cannon balls,
then gave the natives (renegade Creek Red Sticks)

the tomahawk back with a vengeance, with interest,
to remember the massacre at Fort Mims.  Their blood
was up.  Coffee led the charge, eclipsed by a firebrand
named Houston (whose leg carried arrow splinters

all his days).  No cavalry action, just hunters hungry
with blood lust.  No quarter!  They cut bridles for their
horses from strips of enemy skin and made a nose count
of the dead by – you guessed it – removing “brute noses,”

then collected hides and beaded garments to dispense
as gifts to the ladies of Tennessee.  You have to wonder
how many guessed a later squadron including the heroic
braggart Crockett would at Tallushatchee burn a cabin

around the last holdout warriors, women and infants
after fierce battle.  Nearly starved, with no provender
but parched corn for days, the volunteers found baskets
of potatoes amid the embers and gorged, aware

they’d roasted in the grease of the “dispatched savages,”
for it had oozed during the fire through the floor.
At dusk I loft each horseshoe with a twist and hope
to hear it clang on the red rebar, to see a firefly spark

rise up and testify to my luck, but ankle-deep
in sawdust, I can’t banish from my mind expeditions
in history, the scalps and murder on either side,
and when I strike the iron, which shivers in its pit,

trying to be a sane citizen of Sweet Home Alabama,
savoring folksy pastimes, gridiron and country
songs, it’s Horseshoe Bend I remember, Tohopeke
to the Creeks, and that bantam Jackson, who sizzles

in hell as vultures gnaw his liver if there’s justice
in the Everafter that’s color blind and not just ice.

Sheb Wooley

by R. T. Smith

         Don’t try to understand them, just throw and rope and brand them.

The teenaged groom leading my long-toothed
rental mare has the lope of Pete Nolan,
a savvy scout with Gil Favor’s Rawhide herd
for several seasons and portrayed with witty grit
by Sheb Wooley, who blends easily
with the decency of Eastwood’s callow Rowdy,
wry drover Jim Quince and the ornery
cook Wishbone, as they drive the beeves over
desert, through Comanche and rustlers,
tick fever, stampede, the staggers,
to far-away Sidalia to feed the eastern swells
and spend their wages on rigged roulette wheels
and women called Dallas or Dolly.

I also recall Sheb as a country guitar
picker with  a novelty gift who hit it
almost rich in ’58 with “Purple People Eater,”
which as a boy I loved to caterwaul and yodel.
He also gave us Hee-Haw’s theme,
“White Lightning” and “Hoot Owl Boogie,”
but I liked him more as a wrangler, puncher,
scrappy cowpoke with tooled boots and kerchief,
the battered hat and a knack with a rifle,
just like the riders of the Purple Sage.  I admired
the way he sat the saddle and dismounted
at a gallop, a stunt he’d picked up riding rodeo
and managed without breaking a sweat.

Pete was lean and sideburned, quick with a quip
or pistol, the one I wanted to mimic
on Uncle Ike’s pasture nag Cinder, who walked
in her sleep and woke to buck me every time
I sneaked a halter on and scrambled aboard,
headed, I guess, to Dry Gulch or
some flooded gorge with swollen steers floating.

And while I’m drifting into rider’s reverie,
full of prime time fantasies – beans
and coffee, mouth harp whine, sidewinder or stars
wheeling to the growl of a famished panther –
the groom tilts back his Hokies cap, hands me
the reins and asks, “Need a leg up, mister?”
his superior grin fenced with braces
brighter than Mexican spurs.

In honor of Sheb and his cadre of savvy buckaroos,
the whole history I missed and yearned for,
not to mention sweaty Stetsons and home-plaited lariats,
I grab the horn, throw a leg over the cantle,
then point my Colt index finger to squeeze
the trigger, like any badlands jasper inclined
to keep his thoughts from strangers
but still mulish to have the last word.

Slapping the animal’s croup with braid-leather,
I hit the trail, growling, Head em up, move em out,
with two hours of freedom and a fistful
of Aleve ahead.  I can nearly hear Frankie Laine’s
raucous theme, its whip cracking percussion.

Now I don’t care who hears me laughing,
content for the moment to be a yodeling fool
on scout for water with old Pete Nolan, Sheb Wooley,
whatever alias will suffer my company,
the pair of us easy on spirited ponies
traipsing across the dusty prairie, happy, so happy,
to be galloping saddle trash again.

Sergeant John Ordway’s Journal, Last Entry

by R. T. Smith

Captain Lewis now dead by some assassin’s
hand, all the clouds blow ashen and black,
but I remember storming snow, wild artichokes,
prickley pear and how the lark woodpecker flew,
the black horn antelope and dog stew delicious
in the bleak times.  Gass, Shannon, the Fields
brothers all cussing some Mandan weather
god, our Captain Clark by turns taciturn or
shaken with laughter.  The undiscovered
country opened for us, but not without labor,
fevers worse than this, mutiny in the wilderness,
our need to learn quickly how to forgive.
We found time daily to praise our Maker.
Ghost weed grew on the shore, feathered
native men danced, and the keel boat foundered.
Venison or thin broth, I doled the rations daily.
Cruzet’s fiddle by the round fire warmed us
after the maps were almost lost.  The bird girl
saved us often.  Bratton, Labiche, York –
every soul equal at work and celebration.
Nightly I dreamed of my beloved betrothed
Gracy Walker and wished the ordeal over,
yet it was a thrill, despite the rattling snakes,
silver-tip bears like monsters.  Looking back,
I am satisfied I saw enough for one mortal,
man, especially the devilish mosquitoes.
Red sky at morning, currents like a whirling
dervish – the trials of Odysseus with no goddess
close at hand.  We survived by Clark’s dead
reckoning and chance, which Captain Lewis
insisted was just another word for providence.
Once was enough for me, cold faces of compass
and pocket watch – what’s time but a shiftier
form of distance?  There was no passageway
by water.  We had to settle for survival, science
and wonder.  Finally home, I married, savored
after lovemaking the taste of my wife’ shoulder.
Four years hence she was lost while with child.
Since then, phantoms and voices in the mist.
What best do I remember from the journey?

Taste of fresh meat after hunger, and high over
the swollen river a sky salt-white with herons.
Maybe they were angels going where Gracy
now abides and I hope to be bound very soon,
if our Maker will allow me this one last mercy.