R. T. Smith


When the keeper has died,
whose hands have touched
so much honey,

the village will convene
to elect a successor
and to remember

the sweetness of his voice,
his dependable hymns,
the spell of smoke

and the hush just after.
While the elders
resist old rhythms

of grief, no one will speak
of the ancient belief —
how the beefather’s demise,

kept secret, could cause
the death of the hives
in the coming winter.

Then the question will rise
in a nervous murmur:
Who will tell the bees?



Out for a deadbolt, light bulbs
and two-by-fours, I find a flock
of sparrows safe from hawks

and weather under the roof
of Lowe’s amazing discount
store. They skitter from the racks

of stockpiled posts and hoses
to a spill of winter birdseed
on the concrete floor. How

they know to forage here,
I can’t guess, but the automatic
door is close enough,

and we’ve had a week
of storms. They are, after all,
ubiquitous, though poor,

their only song an irritating
noise, and yet they soar
to offer, amid hardware, rope

and handyman brochures,
some relief, as if a flurry
of notes from Mozart swirled

from seed to ceiling, entreating
us to set aside our evening
chores and take grace where

we find it, saying it is possible,
even in this month of flood,
blackout and frustration,

to float once more on sheer
survival and the shadowy
bliss we exist to explore.



Trimming the redbud whose
splendor was just right
back in April, I gave

the white hollyhocks
a shot at sunlight, as who
would begrudge their

skin-sheer petals access
to radiant July? I have,
after all, a steady good

time meddling in that
garden not of my own
making and never find

more trouble there
than paper wasps or
a black racer, but what

rushed through my rash
mind when I saw
bright eyes amid

the blossoming hosta
was this: what if his
mother (blackberrying

downhill, I guessed)
took offense at my
presence? He gazed

steadily at my face then,
as if to prove himself
no menace, the still

fire of his fur turning mild,
and when I saw him weeks
later by the meadow rill

cleaning a fingerling
rainbow with his forepaws,
he gave me no sign.

Now in raw autumn
the hollyhocks have risen
to resplendence,

and this morning under
the birch turning gold
I found hand prints

with small claws. Evidence
of his scavenger’s
existence, though I can’t

say if his animation amid
the torn marigolds is kin
to mine or some restless

sign of the season. At night
he gnaws the rake handle
to taste or maybe annihilate

every trace of my salt.


AZALEAS (1774)

The red ones, ephemeral, festive in time
for early Easter — “Swamp honeysuckle”

Bartram called them, and sketched quickly,
knowing they were close to rhododendrons

he’d found in windbreak coves
where the Appalachian chain shadowed any

thought of spring. Also cousin to highland heather,
and he recalled their name behind the fragrant

momentary blossoms was from the classical
Greek for “dry.” Even as he saw them

across the Savannah River’s soiled waters
as bursts of wildfire inexplicable

in the time of green, he studied the seed
vessels, tasted the root and was sure

the first sap could not long prevent
such loose panicles of flowers from withering.

The branches’ white hardwood opened
to his knife. He found the scent bitter.

Nothing like this existed in all of Europe’s
dark forests or tyrannical gardens, but

he was not homesick, he told his journal,
not Ovid in exile, though all about him

the landscape changed and clouds shifted
so quickly he thought it could only be

the work of a god. Vagrant on this savage
landscape, he did not wish to dwell

in nostalgia for the Passion, the Host
cool upon his tongue or cathedral

echoes, and yet, out there in the Territories,
April looming, shagbark and tulip trees

loosening pollen, sassafras rampant, he found
science inadequate and settled

by the fatwood fire to read Luke’s gospel
aloud. Even mapping his daily transit —

the congress of flood-rich rivers, pinewoods,
azalea-strewn slopes still magical

long after sunset — he could discern only
the Lamb pierced and broken, His suffering

never softened by Latin catalogues
of genus and species. The spread petals,

sudden outcrops of untamed color, his own
fibers tightening — it all taught a single lesson,

the question of estrangement. Secular
in every bone the year before, he had dreamed

of drawing bud and leaf-sheen with a birch
pencil. Now, even asleep, he prayed

for dawn and a sense of mission,
the wilderness a miracle he was meant to list

like Adam, the Adam of plants, though this
was far from Eden and the Swede Linnaeus

had set the precedents. He wished
for subtle pigments to set the heat of azaleas

exact in his ledgers, and that was the first
week out, reconnoitering before the straggling

retinue caught up, before fever,
moccasins, hard crossings and the bewildered

circling. He discovered also four species of biting
flies and a glittering rivulet rising

wild and brilliant from the shadow
of a skull-shaped stone. He could almost

discern the form of Eve dazzling amid sunshafts.
He wrote between calfskin covers, “In a paradise

fallen, I am westbound, stunned by the benison
of azaleas and celebrating Zion alone.”

All poems reprinted, by permission of author, from Messenger, Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

R. T. Smith has published eleven collections of poetry, including Trespasser (LSU 1996), The Cardinal Heart (Livingston University Press 1991), and Split the Lark. A former resident of North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, he now lives in Virginia where he edits Shenandoah for Washington and Lee University.