Poetry: the road to old fort by P.J. Williams (Part 1)
This long poem, by P.J. Williams, drives. A beautifully paced meditation on place and family and memory, filled with blues and grays and burnished dawns—”the road to old fort” invites the reader in on a trip enjoyably unexpected. With Williams’s permission, we’ve decided to publish all of its graceful nineteen pages in three parts through this week. This is part one. Part two is here, and part three, here. (Please note: the italicized text are fragments of/in conversation with Robert Creeley’s poem “The Place”)
the road to old fort (part 1)
A lurch forward
in reverse, a question murmuring
in the rearview: not who
stuck tar to dirt by why this
faint blue path on
the atlas, its bent
benedictions, asphalt pulled tight as wire & let
slack around hills. Synapses briefly catch
spark & recede, & in that new negative
space begun again, faces
creased with light. The mind
plumes: a family history wings
hawk-like—spreads & shuts just
out of view. The still stilled
under one stone in an Old Fort hill.
Fireflies, trapped alight in a sap-heavy
sky, blink whispers on the blacktop,
withered ash slouches
atop a pine. True tales & hazel mourning
doves. It begins in the mountains.
This visit, this time, to make
solid the memories gone
unlived—where light begins &
unspooled into a single infinity.
The road hard-melted to the earth turns
its palm against the pale panting
dawn. Alabama lunges up to gnaw
Appalachian roots, its belly beginning
again to harden to ribs beneath the drop
-thumbed moon. A buzzard sinks
from the sky’s bristled hem & unthreads
a rag of flesh.
—Korean War Memorial Highway—
How it must have looked: shadow, opal
mouth of a water moccasin to see those boys
from the Union come groping
over the ridge, this far south.
A stab of light from a windshield,
the old polished pistol on my great uncle’s hip:
who was on guard duty in China during WWII the night
an old man sold him some rice wine, who got drunk &
hungry & left his post & walked on down to the cafe,
who wasn’t served because that rice wine will get you if
you ain’t careful, who shot up the cafe with his service .45
& was court marshaled & sentenced to two years in the
brig & discharged after those two years, who
subsequently joined the Marines—the war in full tilt—&
was then honorably discharged, who finally came back
stateside to work freighters on the Great Lakes.
My great uncle isn’t buried
next to his sister, his ashes fallen
into the froth chop
of Lake Superior where his brother lies
leaden with the Edmund Fitzgerald.
He is begun again: water in the hard dark
of a lake, river’s unlocking
jaws, deep churning of a deepening
cloud. Evaporated, does the soul persist
literally? An invisible thing not
because it is imagined, but because it is
dissolved. A hawk swoops long ovals above
an adjacent field.
The buzzard keeps eating.
A dandelion bracelet & chain
of bluegrass songs in order to fret
down a note or two & hear
again my grandfather’s banjo.
At his son’s wedding he plucked
the guests’ feet apart over the makeshift
dancefloor & swirled their legs
about their hips until he’d stitched
pitch pines into the sun.
I am of cloud, of this song, its tight-wound tongues
making whole the throat. The road hums,
too: We’re Glad Georgia’s On Your Mind.
A moth’s wing in the chalk
dawn gives way around the mountains.
That these mountains ought not be considered any
different from the ones that hold my blood higher up—
that blood, like light, it blooms from a single center, & all
blood is music in its flushed red form, its blackened
stillness, its evaporation into a pair of eyes that look like
mine, its creation of hands & the vast bruises that
smolder just below the skin, & in this way blood results
in biscuits & the pats of butter that sit atop them like
crowns & melt into what’s beneath, & the recipe is
passed on—as stories, blood, inherent bruises—& in that
mountain crease a graveyard holds my blood like milk
that will never spoil, that will never spill, that will pool,
rippling briefly beneath the breath of stories & the
mountains that tell them.
The road does not lead back
to here. I say Georgia, Georgia, you
are a sudden cliff, & I am too
fast across your edge.
I swan dive slate blue
into Tennessee & my mind,
my mind, o my mind—a chain.
A chain dragged east.
To see more than what’s there with one eye
blind—half Tiresias or half Doc Watson—& to drive
pauses into new places. A poem
as lineage: the first line
the matriarch of what follows, as those lines
that beget lines, stuttered
helix around the same axis. In Chattanooga,
the sun climbs a crane.
A ladder of bones.
The way it was, it is, again, the same: the soft arc of the
sky above the nudge of a mountain range, & the track the
sun takes when peeled apart & skipped across a river.
Somewhere, a child is given a penny &, when all is quiet
& the rails are still, he climbs the chunky gravel sides of
the tracks & places the penny face-up on the rail, ready
to be made oval, to bend over the rounded edges of the
rail, & how this process is memory itself: the blending in
of faces—renewed now only with a photograph—the
changing of shape, too, which proves to be true of the
Tennessee River, which I remember deeper & slower-
moving, but here it jitters across the rocks ruddy, & its
depth is measured quickly by the sun, & how the coin
bends over the edges of the rail as if melting—but
something, somewhere in that blend of metals—memory
a measure of weight & force—something is lost, & the
river forgets the silt it leaves behind.
The banjo a handful of nails
dropped into a coffee can
in perfect order. Once,
I mistook my grandfather’s cup of black tobacco
sludge for coffee & took a big
whiff. The steam from his spit
rose in brief petals into the cold
Old Fort morning, & in that almost-locked
jaw—through the teeth that were
left—he graveled out a laugh.
When the chorus arrives, I harmonize
the past—the way it was
again—& watch the sunrise score a chord
of light, each octave a little more purple than the last.
P. J. Williams teaches in North Carolina. A recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, his poems have appeared in Cincinnati Review, The Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, The Pinch, Salt Hill, and others. He is co-editor of the anthology It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (Minor Arcana Press). He holds degrees from Elon University and the University of Alabama.