Four poems by Joyce Compton Brown
My Cousin Rudy Explains the Spud Tree
For Eugene “Spud” Troutman, 1946-1961
The big beech leans toward
the stream, its smooth gray girth
massive, tilted toward cool waters,
made for resting. Lush leaves
whisper in the shade.
Rudy rubs the carved message
in the thin skin-tight bark.
It begins to focus, like a lens
turning toward clarity, pale and rough,
a barbed wire notch
piercing into its letters.
‘I HAVE GONE HOME.’
“He’d come here to get cool
to wait under this beech tree
here on the creek bank,” Rudy said.
“Finally he just carved a note.
You can still make it out.
The woman didn’t see him
peddling along on that old bike,
in the twilight, with no lights
It got all twisted in the wreck,
it laid in the ditch for days
till somebody carted it away.
Mama grieved for him
like she’d just lost us all.
She’d been warned in a dream.
She was standing in a shadow,
wearing gloves. People in black
were lined up behind her, waiting.”
The tree rustles new-green leaves.
Branches mutter in the breeze.
Rudy bends his face to the shade,
strokes the pale smooth bark,
fingers the stretched carved letters,
Free Prayers at White Oaks Crossroads
We ride in the twilight,
winding toward home.
A flick of motion—
a man with burr hair looms
in headlight’s grainy light,
tee-shirt white in the night, face
jutting like the Last Judgement.
A woman steps from the shadows
at road’s edge. Her pale arms
hold out the message scrawled
in magic marker red on
within dust-flecked beams.
She’s offering— free prayers—
We know this old road,
where drovers and preachers
struck deals of flesh and blood,
where young boys steered,
carlights dimmed, headed south
to Carolina speakeasys,
fire in their bellies,
lightning in their tanks,
where years of mules and sex
were traded out like tobacco chews.
Now these believers,
disciples of the blinding light,
wait ready to shuffle souls
smooth like folding
a deck of cards.
We move on fast, leave
those pale messengers
standing in the darkness.
Their pallid faces strain
against our passing,
in the night.
Standing on the Outcrop
As we have misused our richest land, we have misused ourselves; as we have wasted our bountiful water, we have wasted ourselves; as we have diminished the lives of one whole segment of our people, we have diminished ourselves.
Here the stories linger
nestled in old camp shacks
dissolving into the earth
among rusting shovels and hoes.
They’re in a vine-strangled field
of scrub pines and broomstraw
where somebody’s garden
once grew in well-hoed rows.
They stick in old yards
where women worked string beans
sitting on shaded front porches,
and men plowed fields out back.
They’re hanging by the roadside
where somebody drove an old Ford
into Coxes Creek after the big ice storm.
They linger in a caved-in hosiery mill.
They’re carried in the wind
like spring pollen. All you have
to do is wait, listen in the breeze,
feel the lives come and gone.
Their legends are the landscape
of a burnt-off mountain whose trees
will rise again, whose histories
are twisted pines, clinging in the wind.
The Clinchfield Sings Siren Songs To the Valley Dwellers, 1910
We’ll give you
a company store,
and you can
Go to bed
Go to Bed
Go to Bed
Joyce Compton Brown has published in various journals such as Pine Mtn. Sand and Gravel, Pine Song, Blue Mtn. Review, and Kakalak. Her chapbooks are Bequest (Finishing Line, 2015) and Singing with Jarred Edges (Main St. Rag, 2018). A former professor, she had the recent honor of serving as keynote speaker of the American Gravestone Association, and she won the 2020 North Carolina Poetry Society's Poet Laureate award.