BIG THICKET BLUES
James Byrd, Jr.
Someone loves this between forest
Its wild dogs and families full of
Cradled in sycamore, cypress, willow
pines that tower and point
with precision of sharpshooters’ guns.
Men herded men, lumbered and oiled
out of this land. Spindletop’s slick, wooden
bequeathal of refinery lung.
Ships slunk into this gulf for post
War slave delivery.
Hard winter never comes but brains
squirrelled away anyway.
God soundlessly slithers in and out
of a skull
like a water moccasin.
It’s in my honey / it’s in my
It ran with me under pines until I
pretend the fallen needles and cones no longer
hurt my bare feet.
A black man tore purse from shoulder
phantom pain still slides down my mother’s arm.
Her eyes bounce around like pinballs
she runs into someone whose skin flashes her
back to that act.
Fangs, whiskers and pointed ears inked
dark faces in my father’s yearbook.
His own hard baseball face had only
a few red stitches.
He’d soon be pitched to
brotherhood of electrical workers.
They made sure to put us kids in Brady
only kinds of yearbooks.
Festival of liberty.
Jimmy into another life, or:
slip into the back pocket of what’s left
of this thicket like the hi-hat slips
nearly unnoticed into song.
Some can’t breathe in this dense in-between;
nothing’s ever all that much alive alive-o
in these pines. Or it’s too much.
When I sang (with bullfrogs) to my
sisters at night—
first when there’s nothing, but a slow glowing
dream—I only half-believed in sleep and song.
Electrician versus homemaker every
night he was home,
all night long—not the Lionel Ritchie version.
I stayed awake for the clicking of
cucarachas across the linoleum
as the lights were flicked on.
(I can’t be boy or nun
but maybe a secret closetful
of functioning antique rifles.)
Out by our pond where we jarred
tadpoles, skulls of dogs
perched on sticks.
That that kind of wicked
apprenticed in my neck
of the woods.
Citizens on sundown town’s attempt
desegregation, otherwise known as
Operation “fly in milk bowl”:
One woman on Inside Edition has a
bat and is willing to use it on “niggers and
Another “don’t mind being friends
talking and stuff like that, but as far as
mingling and eating with them, that’s
where I draw the line.”
In chemistry class: can alchemy change blue
blood to gold? I considered this with cheap liquor
until almost blacked out.
Neighbors of fire: their cocksure
gleamed in the sun like broken glass.
The Klan doesn’t always do the whole
clandestine thing anymore; no white robe/
pointy hat get-up in the dead of night.
From I-10, I saw them parade like
kind of Mardi Gras; imagined chains and ropes
instead of purple, green and gold beads
for a flash of black chest.
Local sheriff looked into the news
and said, “There’s no organized Klan in these
parts anymore,” as though he was trying to
convince his kids that he still loved
when three cocksures chained you to the back
of their pickup as though you were some old
leather shoe—the kind people used to tie to
newlyweds’ cars to ward off evil spirits…
I’d just changed my major from criminal
justice to communications.
Tongue-tied and dizzy.
When they ground you into gravel wasteland:
trail of flesh and limbs and face married to 75
different sections of road.
Cops circled each spot unceremoniously
in red spray-paint, spelled out “HEAD”
where it had been whipsawed from your body.
I wondered if my family full of grace
My obsession with JFK’s assassination
On the 6 o’clock news one of your
claimed: “I’d do it all over again.”
So as not to forget this or to self-contradict,
he’s mapped it out with ink on his body.
Your friends say you whooped whatever
piano was around.
Shook some Al Green tunes out of any
On this magic road, you can be
you wanna be.
Like your favorite artist once again
known as Prince,
you could pick up any instrument
and make it home.
And we sing, James: Honey, I know
I know I know
times are changing.
They say you always knew you’d put
that jewel of the forest, on the grand old
Fuck Texas and the mapmaker
who waits until you’re three miles
wide to mark your spot.
Your kids only wanted one
to see you laughing.
I wonder if, out on that old logging
your song was sure and clear, lightning
in their veins.
Sometimes (always), the past erupts
out of the muck, like a snake we didn’t know
was there but is suddenly in our goddamned boat.
All shocked and appalled.
Up in Michigan, I still try to shake
thicket out of this sluggish
stumbling into myself.
Gulf marshes and levies recede through
no fault of their own; we’ll soon know
all their secrets.
In a presidential election year, from
safety, I call my mother
In Texas, just before Obama is elected,
Brandon McClelland is run down, dragged
underneath truck to his death.
“Fringe element,” some townsfolk say.
Fancy talk for: we’re already getting over
this road-burning away of dark bodies.
Easier to rehearse our alibis,
get to the local carwash,
clean this busted pickup of proof.