Jesse Graves

Get Right with God


Words on stone crosses make their demand,

chiseled in block letters hammered out by hand.


Message anticipating each personal apocalypse,

planted deep on roadside banks, keeping watch


over travelers, over those whose lives catch

fire in their throats, spent in swerving eclipse,


spent loosely in a reckless moment, or snatched

from the hand of caution, toll paid to hard land.




I build these crosses to remind folk of Hell.

Most don’t think on it near often as they should,

given what sinners they tend to be,

figuring God will always give them an extra day

to make right what they done wrong.

But that ain’t right, that ain’t how it works.

Your time is coming, sure as day is coming

right behind the sun, and night will foller it.

It ain’t ever been otherwise yet, and won’t be.

I can read the Book, same as you, and this

message is my means of preaching the Word,

which is simple, not got up in sermon speech,

not huffed and chuffed and panted

from the pulpit, but handed down in stone,

like the writ of Moses, like unto the rushes.

I am not a racial man. This Word is for every

sinner, for the Russian, who needs it most of all,

for the colored and for the plain old white.

None do better than the others at righteousness.

It is not for me to choose who follows,

but to make it show even from outer space

what each man has to do, to save himself,

and when we get to space, I have worked up

crosses for the moon, and Mars, wherever

God’s light shines, the Planetary Aviation

Evangelist will provide salvation for any

kind of creature comes to the surface to see it.

I have painted my words on cardboard

and chiseled them in stone, stuck them

together with glue, and painted them

on the roofs of fine houses and barns.

The message is close at hand, though its reach

be wide, we all have the same Lord, 

mine are the hands that bring the good news,

that your heart can get right on the Heaven road.


Field-tender’s Hymnal


My pair of draft-horses scuff the rails

of their stables, the children have eaten

stewed potatoes and bread, and play now

under the Dutch elms’ reaching shade.

They chase chickens and geese,

and it pleases me to watch them

make such trouble while I drink

from a warm cup on the front bench.

This ground we tend will belong to them,

so I teach what they are ready to learn,

how to furrow the fields without run-off,

to watch the moon for signs to plant. 

Soon I will call them in, light the candles.

We will read from St. Matthew’s Passion,

first me, then their mother, then each child

until time for sleep, when I will take a final turn

at reading while their eyes settle into rest.

The candles we do not make at home,

for those we must trade in the far village,

so will not burn them long for pleasure,

just a few more verses, until the music

I hear after saying these words aloud

rises to the chorus, voices that carry me

into dreams of high-stacked hay,

each grown boy driving his own team,

the light of long suffering warming it all.




c  Archaeology


This is what happened before the beginning,

when only the wind cut through hemlocks

and dark owls patrolled the clearings.


You know what they did for work—

digging in the ground and hacking

through trunks of trees, building rooms,


shapes in the air to hold the cold out.

They scouted and shot for food,

trading with others when they found them.


Your father cut hay in the fields closest

to the lake that now covers their first homes,

flattest bottomlands lost to flood,


while you sat at the meadow-edge

watching the tractor make its tight turns

as the ancestors must have done with mules.


You drew shapes like houses, like trees,

with a sharp stick, another in the lineage

watching the grown ones provide,


scratching the old ground with any tools

their hands could force into being,

for whatever secret life the soil offers.


c  The Sky at Night


They brought what they knew of planting

from Rhineland mountains and dense forests,

learned how the seedtimes changed


as they followed rivers down through

Pennsylvania and across North Carolina.

What never changed was the moon,


which roots to put under ground during

the waxing phase and the waning.

Your grandfather grafted fruit trees


when you were a boy, and you admired

how he curled his knife into a branch,

shaving out the soft central pulp.


Cut in the dark of the moon, he said.

You loved to go out at night and look up

Into the clear swirling distances,


your uncle passing a bag of candies

as you sat on the hood of his Mercury,

making up names for the constellations.


c  Mythologies


Their cabins surrounded by woods,

they walked through forked shadows,

under the mottled light of grasping trees.


The elders scared you of any upstairs room,

water held to mirrors in candlelight,

night-time calls of strange birds. 


The constricting fear they passed down

was the promise to reveal the future.

You knew of the west-flowing spring


they said foretold the death of a child,

would show the coffin you would be

buried in, give the signal for darkness. 

        return to poetry

Jesse Graves grew up in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, about 40 miles north of Knoxville, in a community his ancestors settled in the 1780s. He is an Associate Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at East Tennessee State University, where he won the 2012 New Faculty Award from the College of Arts & Sciences. His first poetry collection, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, won the 2011 Weatherford Award in Poetry from Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association, as well as a Book of the Year Award from the Appalachian Writers’ Association, and the 2013 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. His second collection of poems, Basin Ghosts, also won the 2014 Weatherford Award in Poetry. Graves was awarded the 2014 Philip H. Freund Prize for Creative Writing from Cornell University and the 2015 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.