Poetry: the road to old fort by P.J. Williams (Part 3)

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 three. Read part one here, and part two here. (Please note: the italicized text are fragments of/in conversation with Robert Creeley’s poem “The Place”)


the road to old fort (part 3)

A frozen halo around the sun, shed
clouds from shreds of light

like wings, ice a pale blue
ash. Where 40

sinks into Swannanoa Gap,
Old Fort is an aging ember, barely

glowing beneath the lungs
of the trundling breeze.

The entrance into town is marked by the Arrowhead
Monument, which commemorates peace between the
Cherokee & Catawba & white folks who’d all seen the
blood of the other run thin through the shimmering
shallows of old Mill Creek, which runs through the
middle of town, collared into a drain beneath mainstreet
before widening back into its glassy toiling into the
Catawba River, & which carries in its small belly the cries
of children playing skip-rocks on its banks, the raucous
strums & thumps of weekly bluegrass concerts that draw
from counties around, the last whispers of people gone
from this world in the same place they came into it,
which may be whispers of their own, or of death, or of a
closing hollowness that forms into words when it is filled
in by the soft approach of stillness. It is water that carries,
that holds sounds inside, that carves out the world
beneath it in order to preserve, to show how things used
to be upstream, up there on that mountainside where
Grandpa’s farm has long gone quiet, where Granny’s oven
is cold & the garden brown, & a little bit farther down
the ridge, where none of that is true underneath the


Like choked green cinders between
paved stones onto the cemetery lawn,

nimblewill, dandelion,
compass plant:

reminders that what we cultivate—a hill of grass, a
vegetable garden, a road that bores through a mountain
as an artery might connect two hearts if given the
chance, if living things could be kept so, if the many
invasions on the margins could be ultimately defeated:
kudzu, the clotting of blood in the brain, an untameable
amount of sugar in the veins, accumulation of years &
the diseases that come with them like spores blown every
which way in the wind—that none of this is ultimately
possible. It is temporary, our living & shaping, & our
permanency lies here, in the ground or in ash, & in
images seeded in the mind. The shade-blue bruises on
Granny’s hands as she cradled the ceramic dish of banana
pudding onto the table. Her slice of wonderbread & the
half stick of salted butter she’d spread over it for an
afternoon snack. Grandpa’s angular cheeks & nose—
Cherokee somewhere in the lineage—hunched over the
counter as daylight scratched its way up the ridge. Weeds
have taken the rest of it: I know what they used to say
but not the voices they chiseled them with, their posture
but not how they moved from thin-walled room to thin-
walled room, the shag carpet’s soft sighs.

Children play
during recess across the street

from the Pleasant Gardens Baptist Church
& Cemetery. Their laughter & fragile

shouts like the ones birds crack
from glassy silence & flick

into the aging sun. Their songs
prisms. A child

dangles like new ivy from the monkey bars,
his buddies nipping

at his legs with their hands
cupped into claws: crab walk!

they shout, the squat brick school
throwing their voices back

over the graves like Queen Anne’s lace.
Memory romanticizes itself:

that this hill, in my mind, studded with stones, was
much steeper when my grandfather was laid to rest—me
alongside the casket at age nine, too short to bear his
weight & so I held the siderail loosely—& the mountains
across the gap scraped the sky more violently & there was
a silence then that I was sure persisted, no matter what
semi-trucks might rattle by, no matter what train whistle
might cut its ache from the air, but this hill is not that
steep, & the mountains seem tame, & I wonder if they
hear the voices of children & confuse them with mine, if
jets that map straight lines into the sky hum the ground
enough to ripple the blood beneath the surface.

This kneeling: pressing my ear
to time, light, currents that shape

stone. This one, with WILLIAMS
etched into it, beneath which

Geneva & Ellis returned
to each other after one day

shy of six years apart, beneath which
new questions fiddlehead themselves

toward the surface, new currents
the way the ground springs

a stream, & it takes rotted oak leaves, a school
of minnows, a fistful of silt, & makes

faith: an erosion
of the physical world we must make

use of, even if
that use is disbelief.

Even if not believing
in fate takes, itself, a blind refusal

to loosen, to let ebb
the possibility of purpose in the slack.



This thinking is on all surfaces: blade
of bluegrass, broken

brick, air when turned
on edge by mountain winds, undersides

of stone, soil, eyelids, the end
of songs. Ways to come to be

the world or at least
some tangible part of it

capable also of touching
with tongue or boot or

shovel or brush the physical
forms of presence.

Swannanoa Gap will not
shrink. I cannot exhume

silence from widening
ridgelines or make Old Fort

new. Begun again, I begin
again in reverse:

the children called in from recess, the soft click of stray
gravel beneath the roll of tires & a brief reflection in the
church window: going backwards & warped into curves
atop the sills, glass sinking like a spine toward death,
where our faces might shift, where our voices may go
silent but not our words, where our habits are
remembered but maybe not the reasons we kept them,
where we try to find the single synapse that connects
memory to motion, & therein we become real again.



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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