Five poems

by Rodney Jones

Five Poems from Salvation Blues: The Work of Poets, On the Bearing of Waitresses, The Bridge, Ground Sense, A Defense of Poetry

Selected by Patrick Phillips and Billy Reynolds, who offer an interview with the poet.


Willie Cooper, what are you doing here, this early in your death?

To show us what we are, who live by twisting words—
Heaven is finished. A poet is anachronistic as a blacksmith.

You planted a long row and followed it. Signed your name X
       for seventy years.
Poverty is not hell. Fingers cracked by frost
And lacerated by Johnson grass are not hell.

Hell is what others think we are.

You told me once, “Never worry.”
Your share of worry was as small as your share of the profits,

Mornings-after of lightning and radiator shine,
The beater Dodge you bought in late October—
By February, its engine would hang from a rafter like a ham.

You had a free place to stay, a wife
Who bore you fourteen children. Nine live still.

You live in the stripped skeleton of a shovelbill cat.

Up here in the unforgivable amnesia of libraries,
Where many poems lie dying of first-person omniscience,
The footnotes are doing their effete dance, as always.

But only one of your grandsons will sleep tonight in Kilby Prison.
The hackberry in the sand field will be there long objectifying.

Once I was embarrassed to have to read for you
A letter from Shields, your brother in Detroit,
A hick-grammared, epic lie of northern women and money.

All I want is to get one grain of the dust to remember.

I think it was your advice I followed across the oceans.
What can I do for you now?


Always I thought they suffered, the way they huffed
through the Benzedrine light of waffle houses,
hustling trays of omelets, gossiping by the grill,
or pruning passes like the too prodigal buds of roses,
and I imagined each come home to a trailer court,
the yard of bricked-in violets, the younger sister
pregnant and petulant at her manicure, the mother
with her white Bible, the father sullen in his corner.
Wasn’t that the code they telegraphed in smirks?
And wasn’t this disgrace, to be public and obliged,
observed like germs or despots about to be debunked?
Unlikely brides, apostles in the gospel of stereotypes,
their future was out there beyond the parked trucks,
between the beer joints and the sexless church,
the images we’d learned from hayseed troubadours—
perfume, grease, and the rending of polarizing loves.
But here in this men’s place, they preserved a faint
decorum of women and, when they had shuffled past us,
settled in that realm where the brain approximates
names and rounds off the figures under uniforms.
Not to be honored or despised, but to walk as spies would,
with almost alien poise in the imperium of our disregard,
to go on steadily, even on the night of the miscarriage,
to glide, quick smile, at the periphery of appetite.
And always I had seen them listening, as time brought
and sent them, hovering and pivoting as the late
orders turned strange, blue garden, brown wave. Spit
in the salad, wet sucks wrung into soup, and this happened.
One Sunday morning in a truckstop in Bristol, Virginia,
a rouged and pancaked half-Filipino waitress
with hair dyed the color of puffed wheat and mulberries
singled me out of the crowd of would-be bikers
and drunken husbands guzzling coffee to sober up
in time to cart their disgusted wives and children
down the long street to the First Methodist Church.
Because I had a face she trusted, she had me wait
that last tatter of unlawful night that hung there
and hung there like some cast-off underthing
caught on the spikes of a cemetery’s wrought-iron fence.
And what I had waited for was no charm of flesh,
not the hard seasoning of luck, or work, or desire,
but all morning, in the sericea by the filthy city lake,
I suffered her frightened lie, how she was wanted
in Washington by the CIA, in Vegas by the FBI—
while time shook us like locks that would not break.
And I did not speak, though she kept pausing to look
back across one shoulder, as though she were needed
in the trees, but waxing her slow paragraphs into
chapters, filling the air with her glamour and her shame.


These fulsome nouns, these abbreviations of air,
Are not real, but two of them may fit a small man
I knew in high school who, seeing an accident,
Stopped one day, leapt over a mangled guardrail,
Took a mother and two children from a flooded creek,
And lifted them back to the world. In the dark,
I do not know, there is a saying, but he pulled
Them each up a tree, which was not the tree of life
But a stooped Alabama willow, flew three times
From the edge of that narrow bridge as though
From the selfless shore of a miracle, and came back
To the false name of a real man, Arthur Peavahouse.
He could sink a set shot from thirty feet. One night
I watched him field a punt and scat behind a wall
Of blockers like a butterfly hovering an outhouse.
He did not love the crashing of bodies. He
Did not know that mother and her three children
But went down one huge breath to their darkness.
There is no name for that place, you cannot
Find them following a white chain of bubbles
Down the muddy water of these words. But I saw
Where the rail sheared from the bridge—which is
Not real since it was replaced by a wider bridge.
Arthur Peavahouse weighed a hundred and twenty pounds.
Because he ran well in the broken field, men
Said he was afraid. I remember him best
At a laboratory table, holding a test tube
Up to the light, arranging equations like facts,
But the school is air over a parking lot. You
Are too far from that valley for it to come
All the way true, although it is not real.
Not two miles from that bridge, one afternoon
In March, in 1967, one of my great-uncles,
Clyde Maples, a farmer and a commissioner of roads,
And his neighbor, whose name I have forgotten,
Pulled more than a hundred crappies off three
Stickups in that creek—though the creek is not
Real and the valley is a valley of words. You
Would need Clyde Maples to find Arthur Peavahouse,
And you would need Clyde Maples’ side yard
Of roadgraders and bulldozers to get even part
Of Clyde Maples, need him like the crappies
Needed those stickups in the creek to tell them
Where they were. Every spring that creek
Darkens with the runoff of hog lots and barns,
Spreading sloughs, obscuring sorghum and corn.
On blind backwater full schoolbuses roll
Down buried roads. Arthur Peavahouse was smart
To run from the huge tackles and unthinking
To throw himself into that roiling water
And test the reality of his arms and lungs.
Many times I have thought everything I said
Or thought was a lie, moving some blame or credit
By changing a name, even the color of a lip or bush,
But whenever I think of the lie that stands for truth,
I think of Arthur Peavahouse, and not his good name,
But his deciding, as that car settled to the bottom,
To break free and live for at least one more moment
Upward toward light and the country of words
While the other child, the one he could not save,
Shrugged behind him in the unbreakable harness.


Because I have known many women
Who are dead, I try to think of fields
As holy places. Whether we plow them

Or let them to weeds and sunlight,
Those are the best places for grief,
If only that they perform the peace

We come to, the feeling without fingers,
The hearing without ears, the seeing
Without eyes. Isn’t heaven just this

Unbearable presence under leaves?
I had thought so. I had believed
At times in a meadow and at other

Times in a wood where we’d emerge
No longer ourselves, but reduced
To many small things that we could

Not presume to know, except as my
Friend’s wife begins to disappear,
He feels no solvent in all the earth,

And me, far off, still amateur at grief.
Walking the creek behind the house,
I cross to the old homeplace, find

A scattering of chimney rocks, the
Seeds my grandmother watered, the
Human lifetime of middle-aged trees.


If abstract identity, philosophy’s silhouette, authorless, quoted,
and italicized, governs by committee the moments
of a mutinying, multitudinous self, then I’m lost.

But let a semi loaded with bridge girders come barreling
down on me, I’m in a nanosecond propelled
into the singular, fleet and unequivocal as a deer’s thought.

As to the relevance of poetry in our time, I delay and listen
to the distances: John Fahey’s “West Coast Blues,” a truck
backing up, hammers, crows in their perennial discussion of moles.

My rage began at forty. The unstirred person, the third-person
void, the you of accusations and reprisals, visited me.
Many nights we sang together; you don’t even exist.

In print, a little later is the closest we come to now: the turn
in the line ahead and behind; the voice, slower than the brain;
and the brain, slower than the black chanterelle.

The first time I left the South I thought I sighted
in an Indiana truckstop both Anne Sexton
and John Frederick Nims, but poetry makes a little dent like a dart.

It’s the solo most hold inside the breath as indigestible truth.
For backup singers, there’s the mumbling of the absolutes.
Du-bop of rain and kinking heat. La-la of oblivion.

Sheep-bleat and stone-shift and pack-choir.
There is a sense beyond words that runs through them:
animal evidence like fur in a fence, especially valuable now,

self-visited as we are, self-celebrated, self-ameliorated,
and self-sustained, with the very kit of our inner weathers,
with migraine, our pain du jour, our bread of suffering.

If poetry is no good to you, why pretend it can enlighten you?
Why trouble the things you have heard or seen written
when you can look at the mandrone tree?

Rodney Jones from Salvation Blues (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), reprinted by permission from author.