Seconds before the explosion,
crickets were chewing the thirsty air with their legs,
thousands of them together: the air screamed.
Silence. A spark
could’ve touched the grass off.
He was thinking
of mother’s forehead, furrowing slightly
as the bullet buried itself with a thud
in the temple of Chestnut, his childhood horse.
He must have believed the crickets
would put even them to sleep,
four gauzy cottonfields away:
against a leaning ash tree, half-cocked over his gun,
he fell asleep.
Seconds before the tunnelled earth
flashed below him,
seconds before the sun broke its chains,
he was back in the barn again,
hunched into the hammock, gathered into his own arms;
each crumbled tobacco mote was drifting,
suddenly alive in the swallow smothered loft.
A moth lit on his shoulder.
Exploded into his ear,
and father jerked him up by the wrist—
think of family Bible leather, cracked, unkind—
he woke alone,
the sweating leaves burst into ash
where they found his father’s voice.
Hardly had the tents become lanterns
when the air was snatched
of him: feel your lungs expanding now, collapsing.
Hear it with him,
the first four notes of grandfather’s watch
chiming the quarter hour before they snapped,
roared into an ocean in his torn ear.
Just between us, the air kissed itself.
Kissed his entire body in sudden daylight,
a public gesture somehow made secret,
a sheet of honey soaking his woollen pants,
molding the coins in his pocket into a silver lump.
Now that he’s lifted by a monstrous falling
from under this scorched wing,
we can feel his incandescence, wet, heavy hay
falling forever; at his body’s insistence,
we must believe the rain evaporates
as it broke, lifting the smell of burning horse:
Lord, Lord, they are all free now.
“Petersburg Dawn” is from Sunflower Brother (Cleveland State University Press, 2006), and first appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1996, Vol. 72, #4.