The Arkansas Testament

I

Over Fayetteville, Arkansas,

a slope of memorial pines

guards the stone slabs of forces

fallen for the Confederacy

at some point in the Civil War.

The young stones, flat on their backs,

their beards curling like mosses,

have no names; an occasional surge

in the pines mutters their roster

while their centennial siege,

their entrenched metamorphosis

into cones and needles, goes on.

Over Arkansas, they can see

between the swaying cracks

in the pines the blue of the Union,

as the trunks get rustier.

II

It was midwinter. The dusk was

yielding in flashes of metal

from a slowly surrendering sun

on the billboards, storefronts, and signs

along Highway 71,

then on the brass-numbered doors

of my $17.50 motel,

and the slab of my cold key.

Jet-lagged and travel-gritty,

I fell back on the double bed

like Saul under neighing horses

on the highway to Damascus,

and lay still, as Saul does,

till my name re-entered me,

and felt, through the chained door,

dark entering Arkansas.

III

I stared back at the Celotex

ceiling of room 16,

my coat still on, for minutes

as the key warmed my palm —

TV, telephone, maid service,

and a sense of the parking lot

through cinder blocks — homesick

for islands with fringed shores

like the mustard-gold coverlet.

A roach crossed its oceanic

carpet with scurrying oars

to a South that it knew, calm

shallows of crystalline green.

I studied again how glare

dies on a wall, till a complex

neon scribbled its signature.

IV

At the desk, crouched over Mr. — —

I had felt like changing my name

for one beat at the register.

Instead, I'd kept up the game

of pretending whoever I was,

or am, or will be, are the same:

" How'll you pay for this, sir?

Cash or charge? " I missed the

chance of answering, " In kind,

like my colour. " But her gaze

was corn-country, her eyes frayed

denim. " American Express. "

On a pennant, with snarling tusk,

a razorback charged. A tress

of loose hair lifted like maize

in the lounge's indigo dusk.

V

I dozed off in the early dark

to a smell of detergent pine

and they faded with me: the rug

with its shag, pine-needled floor,

the without-a-calendar wall

now hung with the neon's sign,

no thin-lipped Gideon Bible,

no bed lamp, no magazine,

no bristle-faced fiddler

sawing at " Little Brown Jug, "

or some brochure with a landmark

by which you know Arkansas,

or a mountain spring's white babble,

nothing on a shelf, no shelves;

just a smudge on a wall, the mark

left by two uncoiling selves.

VI

I crucified my coat on one wire

hanger, undressed for bathing,

then saw that other, full-length,

alarmed in the glass coffin

of the bathroom door. Right there,

I decided to stay unshaven,

unsaved, if I found the strength.

Oh, for a day's dirt unshowered,

no plug for my grovelling razor,

to reek of the natural coward

I am, to make this a place for

disposable shavers as well

as my own disposable people!

On a ridge over Fayetteville,

higher than any steeple,

is a white-hot electric cross.

VII

It burns the back of my mind.

It scorches the skin of night;

as a candle repeats the moment

of being blown out, it remained

when I switched off the ceiling light.

That night I slept like the dead,

or a drunk in the tank, like moss

on a wall, like a lover happier

in the loss of love, like soldiers

under the pines, but, as I dreaded,

rose too early. It was four.

Maybe five. I only guessed

by the watch I always keep

when my own house is at rest.

I opened the motel door.

The hills never turned in their sleep.

VIII

Pyjamas crammed in my jacket,

the bottoms stuffed into trousers

that sagged, I needed my fix —

my 5 a.m. caffeine addiction.

No rooster crew brassily back at

the white-neon crucifix,

and Arkansas smelt as sweet

as a barn door opening. Like horses

in their starlit, metallic sweat,

parked cars grazed in their stalls.

Dawn was fading the houses

to an even Confederate grey.

On the far side of the highway,

a breeze turned the leaves of an aspen

to the First Epistle of Paul's

to the Corinthians.

IX

The asphalt, quiet as a Sabbath,

by municipal sprinklers anointed,

shot its straight and narrow path

in the white, converging arrows

of Highway 71. They pointed

to Florida, as if tired warriors

dropped them on the Trail of Tears,

but nothing stirred in response

except two rabbinical willows

with nicotine beards, and a plaid

jacket Frisbeeing papers

from a bike to silvery lawns,

tires hissing the peace that passeth

understanding under the black elms,

and morning in Nazareth

was Fayetteville's and Jerusalem's.

X

Hugging walls in my tippler's hop —

the jive of shuffling bums,

a beat that comes from the chain —

I waited for a while by the grass

of a urinous wall to let

the revolving red eye on top

of a cruising police car pass.

In an all-night garage I saw

the gums of a toothless sybil

in garage tires, and she said:

STAY BLACK AND INVISIBLE

TO THE SIRENS OF ARKANSAS .

The snakes coiled on the pumps

hissed with their metal mouth:

Your shadow still hurts the South,

like Lee's slowly reversing sword.

XI

There's nothing to understand

in hunger. I watched the shell

of a white sun tapping its yolk

on the dark crust of Fayetteville,

and hurried up in my walk

past warming brick to the smell

of hash browns. Abounding light

raced towards me like a mongrel

hoping that it would be caressed

by my cold, roughening hand,

and I prayed that all could be blest

down Highway 71, the grey calm

of the lanes where a lion

lies down on its traffic island,

a post chevroning into a palm.

The world warmed to its work.

XII

But two doors down, a cafeteria

reminded me of my race.

A soak cursed his vinyl table

steadily, not looking up.

A tall black cook setting glazed

pies, a beehive-blond waitress,

lips like a burst strawberry,

and her " Mornin' " like maple syrup.

Four DEERE caps talking deer hunting.

I looked for my own area.

The muttering black decanter

had all I needed; it could sigh for

Sherman's smoking march to Atlanta

or the march to Montgomery.

I was still nothing. A cipher

in its bubbling black zeros, here.

XIII

The self-contempt that it takes

to find my place card among any

of the faces reflected in lakes

of lacquered mahogany

comes easily now. I have laughed

loudest until silence kills

the shoptalk. A fork clicks

on its plate; a cough's rifle shot

shivers the chandeliered room.

A bright arm shakes its manacles.

Every candle-struck face stares into

the ethnic abyss. In the oval

of a silver spoon, the window

bent in a wineglass, the offal

of flattery fed to my craft,

I watch the bright clatter resume.

XIX

I bagged the hot Styrofoam coffee

to the recently repealed law

that any black out after curfew

could be shot dead in Arkansas.

Liberty turns its face; the doctrine

of Aryan light is upheld

as sunrise stirs the lion-

coloured grasses of the veld.

Its seam glints in the mind

of the golden Witwatersrand,

whose clouds froth like a beer stein

in the Boer's sunburnt hand;

the world is flushed with fever.

In some plaid-flannel wood

a buck is roped to a fender —

it is something in their blood.

XV

In a world I saw without end as

one highway with signs, low brown

motels, burger haciendas,

a neat, evangelical town

now pointed through decorous oaks

its calendar comfort — scary

with its simple, God-fearing folks.

Evil was as ordinary

here as good. I kept my word.

This, after all, was the South,

whose plough was still the sword,

its red earth dust in the mouth,

whose grey division and dates

swirl in the pine-scented air —

wherever the heart hesitates

that is its true frontier.

XVI

On front porches every weak lamp

went out; on the frame windows

day broadened into the prose

of an average mid-American town.

My metre dropped its limp.

Sunlight flooded Arkansas.

Cold sunshine. I had to draw

my coat tight from the cold, or

suffer the nips of arthritis,

the small arrows that come with age;

the sun began to massage

the needles in the hill's shoulder

with its balsam, but hairs

fall on my collar as I write this

in shorter days, darker years,

more hatred, more racial rage.

XVII

The light, being amber, ignored

the red and green traffic stops,

and, since it had never met me,

went past me without a nod.

It sauntered past the shops,

peered into AUTOMOBILE SALES ,

where a serenely revolving Saab

sneered at it. At INDIAN CRAFTS

it regilded the Southern Gothic

sign, climbed one of the trails,

touching leaves as it sent

shadows squirrelling. Its shafts,

like the lasers of angels, went

through the pines guarding each slab

of the Confederate Cemetery,

piercing the dead with the quick.

XVIII

Perhaps in these same pines runs,

with cross ties of bleeding thorns,

the track of the Underground Rail-

road way up into Canada,

and what links the Appalachians

is the tinkle of ankle chains

running north, where history is harder

to bear: the hypocrisy

of clouds with Puritan collars.

Wounds from the Indian wars

cut into the soft plank tables

by the picnic lake, and birches

peel like canoes, and the maple's

leaves tumble like Hessians;

hills froth into dogwood, churches

arrow into the Shawmut sky.

XIX

O lakes of pines and still water,

where the wincing muzzles of deer

make rings that widen the idea

of the state past the calendar!

Does this aging Democracy

remember its log-cabin dream,

the way that a man past fifty

imagines a mountain stream?

The pines huddle in quotas

on the lake's calm water line

that draws across them straight as

the stroke of a fountain pen.

My shadow's scribbled question

on the margin of the street

asks, Will I be a citizen

or an afterthought of the state?

XX

Can I bring a palm to my heart

and sing, with eyes on the pole

whose manuscript banner boasts

of the Union with thirteen stars

crossed out, but is borne by the ghosts

of sheeted hunters who ride

to the fire-white cross of the South?

Can I swear to uphold my art

that I share with them too, or worse,

pretend all is past and curse

from the picket lines of my verse

the concept of Apartheid?

The shadow bends to the will

as our oaths of allegiance bend

to the state. What we know of evil

is that it will never end.

XXI

The original sin is our seed,

and that acorn fans into an oak;

the umbrella of Africa's shade,

despite this democracy's mandates,

still sprouts from a Southern street

that holds grey black men in a stoop,

their flintlock red eyes. We have shared

our passbook's open secret

in the hooded eyes of a cop,

the passerby's unuttered aside,

the gesture involuntary, signs,

the excessively polite remark

that turns an idea to acid

in the gut, and here I felt its

poison infecting the hill pines,

all the way to the top.

XXII

Sir, you urge us to divest

ourselves of all earthly things,

like these camphor cabinets

with their fake-pine coffins;

to empty the drawer of the chest

and look far beyond the hurt

on which a cross looks down,

as light floods this asphalt

car park, like the rush Tower

where Raleigh brushes his shirt

and Villon and his brothers cower

at the shadow of the still knot.

There are things that my craft cannot

wield, and one is power;

and though only old age earns the

right to an abstract noun

XXIII

this, Sir, is my Office,

my Arkansas Testament,

my two cupfuls of Cowardice,

my sure, unshaven Salvation,

my people's predicament.

Bless the increasing bliss

of truck tires over asphalt,

and these stains I cannot remove

from the self-soiled heart. This

noon, some broad-backed maid,

half-Indian perhaps, will smooth

this wheat-coloured double bed,

and afternoon sun will reprint

the bars of a flag whose cloth —

over motel, steeple, and precinct —

must heal the stripes and the scars.

XXIV

I turned on the TV set.

A light, without any noise,

in amber successive stills,

stirred the waves off Narragansett

and the wheat-islanded towns.

I watched its gold bars explode

on the wagon axles of Mormons,

their brows and hunched shoulders set

toward Zion, their wide oxen road

raising dust in the gopher's nostrils;

then a gravelly announcer's voice

was embalming the Black Hills —

it bade the Mojave rejoice,

it switched off the neon rose

of Vegas, and its shafts came to

the huge organ pipes of sequoias,

the Pacific, and Today 's news.

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