Poetry: the road to old fort by P.J. Williams (Part 2)

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 two. Part one is here. 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 2)

In Knoxville, the haze turns from buttermilk to
sickly orange, sags from concrete

like garage rags soaked in diesel. Just off 75
this gas station & a song

I don’t recognize: a saxophone waxes
brass, a piano detunes

silence. Grandpa would call this
putting lipstick on a pig:

smooth jazz on the radio, fancy
sign in script out front—

& grime-slick tile, a low-hanging
stench of spilled beer & spit.

When Grandpa died I remember watching my father
comb through his shop propped up on cinder blocks,
watching him pick things up & set them down,
thinking Take everything, take time—a feeling of need
that rose from fear: that whatever was left—pliers,
channel locks, an old lawnmower blade, half a
disassembled tractor transmission—was at least as
important as the funeral itself, was just as rusted as his
body & needed that same kind of care, that I had come
to the realization that we could not go back a day, that
remembering could do anything WD-40 could do, that
remembering helped crutch up the sun just a little
longer so that flickering spot in the front yard just
outside the shade of the poplar would remain warm &
my great uncle’s dog could still slobber there. The
choice of what to take & what to leave behind reveals a
self we didn’t know—& I watched my father & his
brother split the tools between them & remember that
in that remembering, their taking was exactly the same.

An infinity carved into plaster & filled in
with pencil, a dark luster in the jaundiced

light. In ink, a declaration: Jesus
loves you—& an echo

Keep time. Nod into it as into the small

synchronization of nerve, heel, hoping
somewhere in the loop

the grout breaks down
& I find a way loose.



In my eagerness I confuse
the Tennessee earth,

its staggering,
for North Carolina when 40 turns

south, squeezed into the first cerulean
ripples of mountains. The western fall

of the Appalachians—this edge
I’d never known—where the Smokies held

hiding fires & gave soldiers
away when the smoke had snaked

the labyrinth of cracks like a heart
first fills the body & there lies

naked a new faith & ache: an infant’s hand
around a finger, slowly—its blinking

on a new light, full-lunged
cry & blood that heats

the body for the first time & holds
air up to that warmth

as if to a fingerprint
or a drop of water.

& as mountains rise & fall & wilt gray out of sight, so too
does the body. I play it back again: at the foot of the
hospital bed I held my grandpa’s ankle where I could feel
the screws of his surgery long ago when the mower
tipped & came down on his leg, & how thin the skin had
stretched about the screwheads, his head tilted, his jaw
tilted open, half-conscious, a few of the teeth he had left
pointing back into his mouth as if retreating, & the
flames the mountains turn to in fall out the hospital
window—smelted all summer into this—& at nine years
old how much I understood & how much I didn’t, how
early we’d rise & spend the day at the hospital rotating
through hard chairs in his room, & my mother helping
the nurses wash him & how he thought the catheter was
silly: that they could just hook a stovepipe up to that
thing & set it out the window.

Was the first child born
in that hospital after his death aware

or instead found a way
not to know such a thing

too soon: that the sterility
of such a death—wrinkled skin smoothed

in the blank blue light, the wires
signaling hymns—might be the only thing

to comfort us as soon as we take
air into our lungs, & what it means

to breathe—the brief
foolishness of thinking

a breath is our own to hold—
is no different than the staggering

path we take from birth
to death, from breath to forgotten

breath, from ridge to ridge into
a valley that clutches at memories

as a web cradles
what the wind drives into it.



Here, the beginning of the silt
to salt: Pigeon River’s lilting, the road’s

submission to its bends, & Tennessee,
right here, mends into North Carolina.

This uncertain path, where dynamite
driven into rock leaves

a wider bank to pave,
where the sun finds opened

stone it hadn’t touched since
it first found passage through

the breathlessness in which it burns,
where the earth’s oldest folds

are driven to dust in slick
friction. Pines thicken from bristles

to brush, & there a truth: a foil to the failure
of faith, how each threadbare

cloud coronating a distant
range may or may not be

a brushstroke, acrylic cobalt
seeping out as if sky were left to us

to figure out how to make
use of beauty.

Granny painted gourds—the need to cover, to redo, to
supplement what was there with what wasn’t: something
different, something with a little purple, something that
went against the gourd’s hollowness & seed-rattle. There
was always a fullness in her, in the singlewide where I
slept on a pullout after momma brushed off the mouse
shit, in the buttery steam of the kitchen, in their pet
parakeet’s evening chatter from atop the washing
machine, in the echoes of my voice from the field of baby
pines across the road where the feed hay had been
harvested for the last time many years before—a fullness
of color in her brush: a small lump where a bead of red
had dried, a raised line of green, bristlemarks embedded
in a long stroke of ochre. She’d finish up a gourd & hang
it somewhere—in the garden, on the wall of the kitchen,
on my head like a flopped over dunce cap—& start a
new one, or start on a doll or ceramic cow or plaster
apple. When Grandpa had his stroke & became quieter
& leaned on the newly dulled earth with a cane, Granny
could not paint him, & like all of these stories, this one is
incomplete, half-numbed into the regret that time lets
grow for not asking, for not being old enough to know:
if it was that he wouldn’t let her touch him with a brush,
or if those colors just don’t exist.

On which side of the mountain does the sun find
an end to its chorus of distances?

How, in this thinking, is such knowledge made
useful, & where is the single

particle of light responsible for the first song?
Which rocks here have their voices

touched? Which rocks have turned
their voices around?



The sun climbed the clothesline
early & fell from the farm’s

edges late, always
with plenty to mend:

an empty milk pail at 4am, the old fence along the
Eastern edge of the hay pasture where it met with stone
& always came loose after the last bones of winter had
softened up to mush, the untilled dirt of Granny’s
personal garden & Grandpa’s insatiable appetite for
whole sweet onions, how the mind might unmake itself
as the first razorbacked chill sawed down the ridge, how
the kitchen can get to be a lonely place when your
husband spends the day working on hydraulic lines &
there are no children to cook for, how the skin turns to
tissue paper & rips just as easily & banging your hand on
the edge of the counter or knocking a knuckle against
the carburetor on the old Ford might turn you as purple
as the night that always comes too soon: before
everything is fixed, before the rabbits that live across the
drive can find their way home & the viscous dark is
turned to swirls beneath the wings of owls, before you
can say the prayers you meant for daylight to receive,
before you can call your children just to say hello &
wonder when they’re visiting again, before the cows are
herded up & so they’ll have to huddle beneath the
poplar, before grandchildren are born, before the mule
that broke its leg along the creek can get the easy way
out, before the wooden bridge is repaired & thus clears a
path to town for a secret whiskey, before anyone can
make sense of the way a heart doesn’t know how to stop
itself before it’s too late & begins to fill the skull with
blood, before another cane is made, before the insulin
shot, before you can decide to make banana pudding or
not & instead end up painting another gourd to pass the
time & when your husband walks in neither of you smile
or frown but there is something—when the ridgelines
have laid out night like a tablecloth & wiped smooth the
folds—that was mended a long time ago, before any of



P.J. Williams

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.

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