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.



“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,

like braille.




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

corrugated cardboard

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,

white-heat sizzling

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.

            Wilma Dykeman


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






in their

cold hard


the train









Come on

Come on

Come on.

We’ll give you


a house

a church

a company store,

and you can

work shifts

work shifts

work shifts

and then

Go to bed

Go to Bed

Go to Bed





down in





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.