Editor’s note: “Red Paint Hill” was nominated for the 2010/11 Best of the Net Awards.
Red Paint Hill
This is the confluence, the wishbone split
where Clark’s men lifted their dripping oars
out of the river and shaped the watershed
into a commerce town they could live with
dying in. Now the hill’s a cemetery for
Revolutionaries like Virgil Deathridge,
whose name sounds too damn mythical
to mean anything genuine here in 2010.
We’d be unimpressed with his outdated
version of Hell: musket fire and gangrene
too tame for the likes of our chemical rage.
So enough about all that soft limestone
we carved into effigies and left towering
above the bones of the men they resemble.
The river tribes knew better than to chisel
their names into stone, which in the end
is owned by no one but the falling rain.
I’d pray for a flood, but that seems cruel.
And why pretend to believe in such holy
wizardry? The last flood ruined two old
churches, then stopped at the threshold
of our only porn shop across the street.
A flotilla of black hymnals drifted past
the narrow doorway to Southern Secrets.
Variation on a Theme by Larry Levis
-after In the City of Light
Descending, I looked down at light lacquering fields.
A fresh layer of rainfall settled into the spaces
between soy leaves. Clouds pasted shadows
of glue across the two-lane highway.
I was home again, and I had never left
for longer than a year before driving back
to the place of my father’s birth, and mine.
All those familiar clusters
of pale vines, and small towns, each
its own city of light and growth.
How easy it was to crawl back
into the muddy womb
of river bottoms where I spent
years fishing for God knows what.
What did I want that night
with a water tower? Then the shadows of wings,
my own arms, appeared as I climbed.
The steel rungs slick beneath my sneakers.
Heaven hung above me like a flag,
black and rippled, mottled with stars.
Not much sound within earshot
to crack the stillness. Only night traffic,
then nothing. My own truck’s engine
still warm in the overgrown ditch below.
You can’t hover between heaven and earth
for long without wanting one of them
to claim your body. How easy it was,
the blind drive home. The roadmap
folded squarely in the glove box.
Some winter nights I hear them
perched in the river birch outside,
shaking snow from their wings
after a long and difficult flight.
They blend in with the bark—
ash-grey and shredded, bereft.
You tell me they don’t exist,
and my throat fills with feathers.
I point to the curling wind,
ask you how it arrived here.
Heaven-sent or kicked loose
by a gathering of hooves
along the river’s sloped banks,
the result is always the same.
I want you to feel my hands
slipping the curve of your waist
in this wine-soaked hour before
the house is sealed with sleep, but
there’s nothing worse than a swarm
of black eyes behind a windowpane.
This is what happens when prayer
wears so thin they have to descend
on our dark yard in Mississippi
with their ice-crusted bodies
to press their faces against the glass,
to remember what any of this was like.
Chris Hayes is a Tennessee native who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in creative writing at Florida State University. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Fourth River, Barnwood International, and Zone 3, among others. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and daughter.