Originally appeared in Union by Don Share, Eyewear Publishing, 2013.

With these songs, sole comfort
— Sterling A. Brown

The bridge is there
for crossing or not

On the other side
lies the fabled West

I come with a guitar
slung over my shoulder

The song I sing
comes from the heart of wood

The notes I play
are lost, lost, and lost


On Union Avenue
a long

siren yawns

Lights change slow and grand
from here to the river

The river slouches on
from here to the Delta

Perhaps there is no
siren or man here

Just river


Tonight I saw
the moon enter the river

It slid past the bluff
through the sunken dogwood

left a sheen
on the levee

while the black-hearted river
froze into whitecaps

and the Mississippi turned
all into ice:

Mississippi ice


No birds luffed
upward here

The Arkansaw wind
is dry and starved

It rasps the heft
off the hogs’ bones

It brings yellow fever

The Arkansaw wind
is a skilled hand


The river is where
time is illegible

The river rushes past
without rushing

past Memphis
where a drowned flag rises

Where America folds in
on itself and against itself

Where the United States ends
and begins

The Mississippi is
a long American wound


When geese fly out
to Mud Island why do they stop?

Rock by rock
the riverway leads noplace

leads noplace
but the brownskin river

the river the birds recognize

A body of water
Mirror of dry souls

Who knows Memphis?

Memphis was born
from abolished ruins

Memphis forgot
that Memphis is guilt

Step by step
its folks wade down

its groaning steps
till they damn near drown

in robes of thick mud

Dismantled city
Throne of noplace


Memphis is
two syllables

I say each one
by the statue over the bones

of General Forrest

near the medical school
where black doctors train

who go back
to parts of town

where anger never cedes

from old
cracked lips



A tall reedy man
fishes by the bridge

I find him there

Under the bridge
farther along

I hear more
than his blues

I hear something

A swarm of rats
Our rats



The terms
of river warfare

are obscure

Tom Lee Park
when blanked out

with snow
(it does snow)

shows no sign
of catastrophe

of blues
of yellow fever

of the humid months
of blood and dust

or war lost
or the South’s ghost

but the monuments
engraved and broken

leave their marks

and contain understanding

The South has gone down
and it will not come up


Ma Rainey
is gone

who would show
you through here

This stone, that stone
like fallen Bibles

If there were

a book of Memphis
it would be a book

of the dead
It would have no words

only blues
blues like a Gulf

storm whipping up
the Mississippi

shaking the pernicious

slapping the dogwood
leaves till they weep

strumming the plumed
factory smoke

then blowing a last

of cotton
down Front Street

by the Cotton

And hearing
all these blues

the afternoon
would grow dark

then the afternoon
would grow light

then the sun would
set as if

nothing ever happened

no note added
or taken away

And you would hear
that this water-eyed blues

is not a bitter blues

I try to hum
by Ma Rainey’s grave

a few broken bars


The rain
throws down lead

bullets of rain
over a beaten city

with no horizon

Beneath the river we see
is the river we do not see

Drowned water

Cruel rain
Cruel river:

Better be movin’
Better be travelin’ on
Mississippi get you
If you stay

In the hearing
of our ancestors:

You better move soe
Better not get rooted
Muddy water fool you
If you stay

The river so close
The past so close


Now the river swells
its wet lungs

and threatens
to rise again

In truth all
its currents flow

like knuckled roots
into one lonesome earth

Photo by Thomas Hawk