Rebecca Black

Bartram among the Seminoles

Men sit in the hot house until stacked

spirals of cane burn back into carbon—


they know the time when nothing’s left

to tell it by.  There are drawings of men


with the heads of turkey and bear,

and drawings of animals with the heads


of men. In the granary, a mouse sleeps

in the jaws of a rattlesnake,


it has been so charmed. Bartram’s clearly

lost, dreaming on pine needles


where the swamp turns into a stream.

I think he crossed the River Flint


where magnolia leaves stiff as parchment

fall to asphalt in a small town I’ve come


to consider cursed, though I am not prone

to superstition, only the occasional lapse


from reason or sly embellishment.

Where city fathers drained municipal pools


so the races would not commingle.

And the most peaceable creatures


are flayed, each in its own season.




The hunting camp’s gambrel hook swings

empty like a new letter in the alphabet, 


character in a gothic syllabary.  In the creek

beside the camp of red-necked augurs,


my father’s seen crawfish big as lobsters

feeding on guts.  If anything keeps us


from spinning into chaos it’s the swamp

De Soto called “Toa” as he slunk through


in the 1550s.  Mud can cure entropy—

I’ve plastered it on my chest and risen up


gargantuan from the pits.  Once a rattlesnake

stretched clear across the road,


and I felt the tire-thump over its belly

in my own tailbone.  The snake kept going


into the cane. Better not to have bones

if you’re in danger of being crushed.


Better to stay low and cultivate a presence. 

The last time I was home there was a drought,


and really no reason for Oglethorpe Bridge,

so I drove back from where I’d come,


towards the smell of burning grass

in the new developments, where recent immigrants


rake embers on a lawn, paint melting

off the tines.  From one window


there’s a dry lake,  and my father sits

with his back to the scene, his fingers gnarled


into flower buds by a stroke. My description

is half hope, half irony.  Bartram knew


that naming was a misguided enterprise.

No one’s sure where he was during 1774.


Likewise, this is an undocumented time.

The hornbeam is one long nerve between worlds.


If Bartram didn’t sleep in the woods

near my home what does it matter? No one told


the natives their enemy De Soto was dead,

his body loaded with sand and sunk


into the Mississippi,  the “sire of many rivers.”

You’re invited anyway to fathom the publications


of this stream, the many lost volumes of mud

it took to call this land riverine.


After Bartram crossed the flooding

Flint, he had to go on alone. 


His rations were low during July 1775.

Though his hand shook with hunger,


he took great care to draw a crane

he’d never seen before.  In this way we depict


what we devour and dream of our fathers.

The mouse writhes in the belly of fire.


Bartram was starving and took the bird’s

roasted flesh to his own, his hands


black with ink or ash—who’s left to tell?



“Bartram among the Seminoles” first appeared in The Missouri Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2 2002.