I came to know James Brasfield and his wife, fiction writer Charlotte Holmes, many years ago when she taught at Western Carolina University. Jim's collection of modern poetry must have been the most extensive of anyone's and surely the most capacious I had ever seen. I knew he was a poet himself, but it took a few years before I knew just how good he was. His reading at the WCU Literary Festival left me
in a state of profound silence. I knew I had to read more of his work. He obliged by sending me his first manuscript of poetry, later titled Ledger of Crossroads. LSU Press published the collection last year. I'm featuring several of the poems, in hopes you will want to order his book from LSU or from an indie bookstore. I believe you will share my state of attentive silence after reading these poems.
Here's a bit more about Jim.
An LSU Press paperback original
(from LSU Press catalog-www.lsu/lsupress)
In James Brasfield’s Ledger of Crossroads, layered by light and shadow, the crossroads emerge from distinct yet inseparable geographies. Grounded in the sensual world, the poems fuse American and Eastern European landscapes: “the char of silence and beauty, / brick foundations of what was here, dirt roads / cut through pines, rivers and the dust of the dead.” Here are experiences from the American South, of those who believed Jim Crow “the way things . . . had to be,” and from the fallen imperiums of those “who have always / returned to fewer trees and a wall,” whose intimate perceptions provide moments of reprieves: “beyond the faint scent / of almond in the air and heavy clouds / funneling from the earth into snowfall, / the current calmed within that distant / bend of the Vistula.” Here we become the identities of others, their time and place, from the strata of their histories. They enter our lives.
James Brasfield has twice been a Senior Fulbright Fellow to Ukraine and has received fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the American Association for Ukrainian Studies Prize in Translation, and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. He is the cotranslator of The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha.
HEART OF DIXIE
Every day came, the char of silence and beauty,
brick foundations of what was here, dirt roads
cut through pines, rivers and the dust of the dead,
bone silt and a song, bird cries, the freight train
through the county, crops and cows, chickens wandering
a patch of yard, wind through sun-silvered leaves,
the clay baked hard, undulating in August, farmers
in a field, weathered wooden sheds, isolated.
Every day came, a hound in the yard.
Call it circumstances, the way we thought things
had to be, rough and polished stones on a creek bank.
We had no choice but to believe, sincere and alone
and the black faces, their eyes lowered
in our homes on Broad Street. We did not sympathize.
It was almost normal. Call it circumstance,
the alarm and nature of sidelong glances,
the way we thought things had to be,
God's will, our history and we wanted it quiet.
It was always dark. You get used to anything, we said
with eyes lowered. It was almost perfect here,
mist and wildflowers, the charred cross
in a field. It was almost normal, a quiet stream
and a gravel road. Every day came.
It was dark and no one could see.
Through the colonnades of oak
arched over the cold road, I drive through rain
filtered through the moss cathedral—
the outbound sun, distant at the crossing,
night, a large cloud, fills the air.
I remember my last spring here,
the air warm with the coming of another season.
Nothing was in the field, then a tent appeared
and a cross nailed to a sign. There
I witnessed the Pentecostal fire.
Fifty chairs circled a low stage
and two poles held the canvas high.
Four bare bulbs lit that tabernacle.
With a tambourine, Lurleen, our go-between,
beat out a rhythm on her thigh.
"Pray for me, I pray for you," she chanted,
while the organist moved from chord
to chord, holding each a long time.
The small clamor of hands clapping
was meant to stir the air in hell.
But who heard the wind rising
through sycamores, shifting the paunches
of the flaps, or past the hymns, the field,
miles away the serene code
of successive beats upon the tracks. . . .
Yet what I remember most about Waynesboro,
governed still by its white grandees,
is an old woman, black, standing alone
on a hillside, watching from scrub grass,
waiting as the last passenger
run between Savannah and Atlanta
approached town, not to stop here,
never having stopped here, its whistle
like salvation blaring only nearer
before it was gone. Forever for me
she stands there, facing that train
as now on this road the dark, inbound
stillness trails the long freight of light.
She stands there, like the eternal
white sun over a tin-roofed shack.
Mechanical blades beat time, sweeping
rain from the glass. She is here—
borne up motionless above the crossties,
a place in mind, through the moonless night.
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 5
Such weight, Little Vienna,
snow falling across Europe, villages
lost to avalanche. People who return
say the streets are clean in Deutschland—
on the walks, a mere light dusting
from the newly fallen. Here
in the crosswinds, streets
and walks are buried in ice.
Wherever they are, Little Vienna,
shovels wait shivering.
Last night, who spread the path
of ashes on the walk? Some new tenant
not knowing what else to do
with a cigar box of ashes, handed down,
found far back in the wardrobe?—
the new tenant happy after a night
of polka and a waltz, losing his feet
with his new wife, arm
in arm, and saying later, "Well,
there's this from yesterday?” . . .
Oh last night with stars scattered
across the blackest night—
ice giving way from the balconies . . .
The winter potatoes I peeled were stones
softening, deeply bruised.
Today, I'm nearly out of bread. Granules
of white mold brighten the heel of the brown loaf.
How those wisps of clouds closed in on the stars—
that sky now, a pale cotton curtain
about to fall from its string.
Already the path's covered as under a field
of crushed apples. Bags of ash wouldn't make
a foothold here where winter, as long
as snow falls, lasts a lifetime,
and not to remember the star lodged
in the branches, a crow now to light a limb,
and as it happens suddenly, those flocks
take flight. The gaps between them
are like those places where we hope to see
any star beneath moving clouds.
Does the old man hear those wings?—
in each hand a long poplar branch,
the knife-chipped tips probing
the furrowed millimeters of rippled ice—
or does the man leaning against the building
at the corner of Tolstoy Street?
He sings lightly to himself, staring
beyond the tin roofs, heavy with snow,
over the heraldic crests on the faded plaster
of your cracked facades, Little Vienna—
or bundled in black, returning to the village,
does the old woman under a scarf, sliding her feet
like a wind-up doll about to stop?
She leans into the knot end of a rope—
two bags of potatoes on a little wooden sled.