William Kelley Woolfitt

Black Girl in a Stream

after Frank Buchser’s Black Girl in a Stream, oil on canvas 1867

Away from her Washington job, she runs
     away from stenography, she runs
away with him, she runs.  From the train cinders,  
     village clamor, worm-fenced farms, 

through the rhododendron tunnel,
     through leafy chambers of cool and heat,
with him stumbling after, she runs
     to Laurel Creek, the secluded banks

she thought of.  Beneath pine rafters,
     beneath cedar beams, he glances,
in a grove for two, he listens all around—are they truly
     alone­—and unwraps his bundled easel. 

In this year of despisals, she laughs,
     slips off her shoes, her stockings, her blue
tarlatan dress, and slips off her camisole,
     her petticoat, and trembles before him. 

He holds back,
     afraid she’ll vanish, a bubble of froth
melting in the air, if he chances
     the littlest touch. 

She wades in, and twists her body
     contrapposto, and stands ankle-deep
in languors, in dapples where shadows lap
     over the grottos of her skin. 

She mouths a word
     for him to read as he mixes green
for locust leaves, and umber
     for shag-bark and hush. 




Feet still wet, mud-coated from the foaming stream,
man-with-red-eyes fetched seven quartz-flecked stones,
crossed the sheep meadow, slung one stone, and another,
at man-with-blue-eyes.

Red as pokeberries, red as the carp’s spiny fins,
and the stripe of his robe, the fur of his chest,
the slender petals that opened in the forehead
of him-with-blue-eyes:

second-born, mother’s pigeon, god’s pretty,
who did not hunt the beasts, or spear the fish of the stream. 
He tended the ewes, took their milk and fleece,
built tumble-down stick fences

his sheep stepped right over.  Not so heated, not so rash,
blue like the veins peaking through his pale forearms, 
blue like the hedge-flowers that he twisted around
his staff and in his hair,

like the scrub jay who nested in the hedge, shrilled up the sun. 
Red stained the ground until the rain, in silvery spurts and sheets, 
did what the rain will always do. The hedge grew dense
and impervious while the birds

sang to the weather, did what the birds will always do. 
One man fell.  One man flew.  



after Thomas Anshutz’s “Boys with a Boat, Ohio River, Near Wheeling, West Virginia,” 1880 cyanotype (bluish photograph obtained by sensitizing paper with cyanide)

A year from now, millwork will melt them down,
reshape their muscles, soot their faces,
as they dodge cranes, slam furnace doors,

shear cooled iron into squares. 
Today, these boys skip
the spelling bee, the snarls of arithmetic,

the teacher’s darting eye.  Anshutz pays bits
of licorice to pose for a tableau
of boys at play.  They strip, drag the rowboat

into the water, stand spraddle-legged,
face the far shore, the mill that grumbles,
spews grit.  The cyanotype blues

the boys’ pale limbs
and knobby spines, the ash-clotted river;
the everywhere-smoke

fuzzes the trees, smudges
the boy-bodies, and thickens the air. 

      return to poetry

William Kelley Woolfitt studies American literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he is in the third year of the PhD program.  He has worked as a summer camp counselor, bookseller, ballpark peanuts vendor, and teacher of computer literacy to senior citizens.   He is the author of The Salvager's Arts, co-winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize.  His poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, Shenandoah, Los Angeles Review, Sycamore Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review.  He goes walking on the Appalachian Trail or at his grandparents' farm on Pea Ridge (near Kasson, West Virginia) whenever he can.