for Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee
In what language did it mean the river,
this tongue of rust
that gives the forest a name?
The trees can’t tell you
and the forest means you are alone
and a hundred years from Natchez
when the light begins to fold into the leaves.
Not even the birds can tell you.
Alone on the ruined wood
as Audubon saw them,
they can’t even name themselves
so they disappear
rising into the dusk,
their marks lost in early stars.
The painter could bring them down—
a brush of shot, then meteors of Latin—
Picoides borealis, Campephilus principalis
he could raise to that canvas heaven,
leaving only empty mouths
in the world below.
Swallows, starlings tongue the cavities
but cannot make the sound,
and the flickers offer only a syllable—
invisible as the bird everyone is looking for—
ivory bill, lightning jag—
as if that call might end some other way.
As if, in one of a billion trees,
might cough from scarred wood
and write themselves back into history.
The trees are going now,
lost in the dark,
the one you’ll never find,
one side washboard-rough,
the other smooth as standing water
where two men were tied
one May night
to be beaten from this language.
A notebook, an informant’s file
might tell the rest,
how he spotted them,
hitching out of Meadville,
how he waved them in
fake badge flashing,
how he drove them off the map,
headlamps on the clay gash roads
and then the opened pith,
might record the vanished call—
which means Klansman, I want you!
which means you are alone
and soon the water will take you
and keep everything but the names
nothing here remembers.
Now the trees give each other the wind
or the weight of some passing,
and every step stirs the forest’s meal
into clouds of wings, moths
that tumble toward the river,
where they can semaphore like mayflies
or dragons on the lilies’ hoods
or rise through the trees
to eat the night
from the brighter silk of day.
When the starlight’s lint descends
the ground is fluttering.
Slowly it peels away
in innumerable blades,
each one a map of night
seen through water or leaves,
leaving a bolt,
hard and white as bone,
as if some bird had fallen
where those wings could feather it in quiet,
and around it, the shadow a body leaves,
the wake through which it falls.
Now the light is fine as dust.
The ground is cold,
smooth as ash.
Somewhere there is a name for this.
Someone could write it down.