Linda Parsons Marion

FIRST PEOPLE

Subsoil remembers, but topsoil forgets.

                      —Jesse Graves, “Firing Order”      

 

     
   

The Way

 

The tireless field hinging the Tarpley place

leads up one shoulder, down another, walnut

stand, decrepit barbed wire. Bobwire, says

my cousin Cathy, the Giles County native

I’ve known all of thirty minutes. Though nearly

to Alabama, I’d swear it was land around Knoxville,

hill country rippled dense with hardwoods,

prime as the Southwest Territory before statehood,

1796. The day airish for late September, we hike

in jackets, note deer tracks in stubbled hay,

tuned to other rustlings. Just yesterday, a rat snake

in Cathy’s kitchen, fist riled at winter’s prospects.

Now the easy work, the black dog running

orbits, smelling the shift in coolness.

 

Before our coming, my Virginia cousin

Frances burrowed into courthouse files, library

stacks, dead-ends and goose chases, the mold

and brittleness of two hundred-twenty years.

We are well met, three seekers in the clearing

outside Pulaski, Hwy 31A. Our hackles raised

to what even the dog senses, we move from sun

to shades long buried: our great-great-greats

tallied like beads on the abacus. Their unknown

lives drum in our ears, our braided blood,

ancestral kick and wail of Tennessee.

 

Down from Virginia

 

After the Nickajack Expedition, streams

red with battle, land rent with crying. After

the Chickamauga wars drive Creeks, the lower

Cherokees south—the Overhill settlements,                                                                              

gated Cumberlands open to eastern Tennessee,

through the needle-eyed Gap, to Nashville

and below. Down from Virginia, Lunenburg County,

wedged in wagons, stores of hominy, streaked

meat, deeds of hundred-acre parcels in pie safes

and bureaus. Livestock, sent ahead to trample

the understory, down this vein aside the Elk

and Duck rivers, green swatch of Giles

and Williamson counties. Thomas Parsons,

Susannah, his clan of ten, jostled pillar

to post, haw their teams, plant broods in terra firma.

Their saw and rattle through chestnut and poplar

ring out threshold and smokehouse, gristmills,

cotton gins, tanneries—dowry for the taking

of milk and honey, down that sweet-suckled

Wilderness Road.

 

Cemetery Vine

 

My heart still with my mother’s people,

mostly women, churchy and gold ringed,

I climb over now to the Parsons side,

their quietude and Quaker strains, wasted fence

a veil lifted on the worldly stage. Cooler here,

hickory and locust straddle the sunken earth.

Floor of vinca, dark leaved, waxy. Cemetery vine,

Cathy calls it, always covers little graveyards.

She would know, county president, United Daughters

of the Confederacy, taking up copper rods to witch

graves, salute the Franklin Campaign’s fallen.

The rods cross for a man, spread for a woman.

Works every time, their ragged breath in her palms.

Butternut or bluecoat, even colored, places

marked, dedicated with Echo Taps. Her father

had the dowser’s gift, mining well or waterline.

Not today, the rods left in her truck. Not knowing

among the slate stones where wife or baby sister

moaned in childbirth, diphtheria, snakebite.

No copper wands to bridge my grandparents’

shy distance, the Parsons lip buttoned tight,

my father’s cards held close to the vest—

if only I could break through clay to freshet.

 

Rubbing

 

Frances, our compass, our North Star, 

trawls Pulaski dollar stores for butcher paper,

chalk or crayon, for the rubbings. I kneel

on Thomas’s soft chest and beard, smooth

the white sheet, put my whole body into

his remains, his inscription as patriarch

what few words survive: In Memory of

Thos. S. Parsons Born August 11, 1785

Died February 16, 1857. Slowly, the grave

face appears in flat, black swipes, letters

a pebbled zodiac bearing water and fishes

and fine bottomland. Stories we can only

imagine, sound out like fancy cursive on deeds.

Spaces unfilled as the frontier itself or crockery

lashed to packmules, forever lost to cabin rooms

below. The circuit we make, head- to footstone,

surges as if our hands hold copper’s revelation,

as if we too are blessed with divining the earth.

 

Last Rite

 

Over forty years in East Tennessee,

bound now to its Ulster beginnings,

the Appalachians’ ceaseless blue. Whatever

I sought on middle ground bubbles untapped,

as much third cousin twice removed

as those women circled. Another spring,

the undergrowth starred in periwinkle.

More cousins, perhaps, in pilgrimage.

My feet neither weary nor quick

on this genealogy trail, I arrive late,

the gate straining with their passage—

birth and death dates on census, license,

land claim, rumors of dodging war—

runes in the topsoil barely deciphered.

In the dark of my closet, the rollcall of six

generations—their grit lichened on the scroll

granddaughters will unearth. The worn

nub of crayon I keep in my purse,

token for remembrance of that breadmam

held on our tongues, body and blood

of the scarred past. That day we peeled

moss from stone, shedding our stranger skins,

one last rite together:

 

Pardon us our missteps, souls at rest

or restless in limbs’ maple shroud.

Be with us in the hour of brave living

and stumbling, shared names descendants

of first river, first forest, first people.

Let us scatter forgetfulness soon come

to pass, the worm our savior and kin.

Years exhumed on November fog,

this dear life rapt like no other.

 

 

     
           
 
   
     
 
      return to poetry
 

Linda Parsons Marion is an editor at the University of Tennessee and the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Bound. She served as poetry editor of Now & Then magazine for many years and has received literary fellowships from the Tennessee Arts Commission, as well as the Associated Writing Programs’ Intro Award and the 2012 George Scarbrough Award in Poetry, among others. Marion’s work has appeared in journals such as The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Southern Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Shenandoah, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Ted Kooser’s syndicated column American Life in Poetry and in numerous anthologies, including Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume III: Contemporary Appalachia. Upcoming publications include Baltimore Review, Unspendid, Louisiana Literature, and When Women Waken. She lives in Knoxville with her husband, poet Jeff Daniel Marion.