For Jimmie Lee Jackson

18-26 February 1965, Marion and Selma, Alabama


A cloud of starlings drifts from the river,


at first, a smudge on the sky

or the hospital window,


then more definite,


contracting then scattering

like pain.


Nuns ghost, white-robed


as night-riders in the farm-edge pines

haunting the forest along the river,


like lilies on Cahaba’s shoals.




Whenever he wakes someone else is there

just out of view


prayer drowned in the rasp of breath


a song like breaking glass.


Wings clench in the fluorescent tubes,

flutter of shadows


the state patrol colonel

darkening the bed


handcuffs on the rail,

a warrant for a tongue.


Then wings,

blown smoke


gathering somewhere

just out of view.




At the church just after dark


hymns, then the night march

across the square


to sing through the jailhouse window

and February to their brother


who can hear them in their pews,

hear them descend


to the waiting mayor and police chief,

the state troopers who bullhorn them back.


When the reverend kneels to pray,

one patrolman swings his club,


all the lights go down.




Photograph strobes

carve their bodies from the dark,


break and pucker of serge and wool

on arms boxed


to catch the blows,


night-sticks straight

from the flex of uniform sleeves


coats taut between the blades,

white helmets’ gleam


and above, a heaven of breath

and steam and smoke from which


dark feathers

then spreads


coughing dense night air

at the cusp of the lens


carving through the barrel


to spread the shutters blind




No one sees the congregation scatter


or the troopers chase


to the river or church

or blockhouse café


No one sees the bottles flying

As they climb the stairs


or the bricks in the troopers’ affidavits


No one sees the clubs


or the thousand starlings

smoking at the lights


No one sees the old woman

swinging Cokes on the troopers’ heads


or falling from their sticks


or the old man lunging in their affidavits

or falling


or the young one, the grandson

step in to catch the blow


or take the gun




They see the flash and kickback


Jimmie Lee folding in the glass




of the cigarette machine


tube light halo, electric hum




Smoke feathers


singing glass




the grandfather’s face arriving, arriving


in the intermittent light.




No one sees them drag him down the stairs

and into the street


but that is where they found him


No one sees them beat so hard

clubs splinter


skin and spit and blood

through the haze of breath, bodies’ stream


spit half-syllables

that echo from the church face,


the courthouse, tangled strange


and having

found each other




as if the refugees of bone and skin

and breath


gathered in the eaves

and hollows of the dark



so their blows return


ghost wings at their ears




Blood beading arc-lights’ flicker, feathertips of faint

in the road’s warm pitch, wings’ sheen and the splay


of fingers, starling descending from the dark,

assembling in his mother’s warmth, having learned


her hush-now timbre but saying things he can’t make sense.


He keeps saying their recurring sentences, what he hears

in the whisper songs at the lips of his ears.


The doctors open him again, one last

bullet, infection nesting there.


The pavement warm beneath.

Pulse of footfall. Wings.




Dark beats in the overhead lights

till the room is night and sheen


that folds from stars

then sky


into Selma’s oaks

and the girders of the bridge


and the churches’ steeples,

and into all the pines


from there to Marion,


gathering in the stands

around the farm


where his grandfather

follows the preachers


back through the woods.




February silvers all their bruises.

Breath curls into the pines,


into the murmuring dim


and when they slow

everything is quiet


and he can see the towns,

the map forming on their lips.


And when they speak

he sees


their mouths are full of birds.














Photo by Sergey Yeliseev