Jesse Graves, a descendent of German immigrants who settled in the Tennessee hills, understands the connection our ancestors used to have with the land far better than most people in the 21st century do. Like the roots of a pine, Graves’ tie to his ancestral grounds is deep–since he was raised just miles from where they originally emigrated to–and, thankfully, he allows this strong sense of place to permeate his work. Graves has collected a Ph. D. in English from the University of Tennessee and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and he now teaches English at Eastern Tennessee State University. Tennessee Landscape with a Blighted Pine (2012) is his first book of poems and features today’s selected piece.
We sit under the awning and watch them descend in unison.
A flock of thirty or more down through the heavy rain
We weren’t supposed to get, pecking where grass is thin
For what the moisture turns up.
They look like the sound of the word
Grackle, these scavengers with wings muted black as painted iron rails,
As wet tar, their empty beaks flashing a bright citrus smear.
Memorial Day weekend and the weather drives us for cover,
Beating down plastic flowers and darkening the family gravestones.
Each year we arrive, like any family, to admire new babies
And find out who has changed jobs or gotten married,
I come to see who’s left to sit in the shaded chairs
Where my grandmother sat with her oldest sister Minnie
For the last time, neither of them able to name the other,
Both staring as if into a clouded mirror.
In the memory of their faces
I see pillars of stone, pillars of stippled salt,
Where the hammer of time drives the chisel of living,
The opaque blue of their eyes, each pair reflecting the other,
Sky blue buttons threaded through a dark blue dress.
Homecoming at the cemetery: they never let us go, even the ones
Laid under before our births continue to make their claims,
To draw the interest on their spent lives.
My grandfather waits here,
A Houston buried in Johnson ground—such is the appointment
He made with them. He was dead two years before
I was born, but who do I remind the old people of?
Whose picture did I stare into above the living room fireplace?
My great-uncle Gene tells my father and me about the base
He served in Korea, how bombs sounded hitting the village,
While a hundred feet away is my cousin Gary,
killed in Vietnam, telling his story into our other ears,
into the soles of our shoes.
The foraging birds drag worms
Out of the ground; we pull dark meat from the bones
Of chicken thighs and split boiled potatoes with plastic forks.
Damp air hums in our lungs and old people begin
Covering dishes—the rain always seeps in,
Even under shelter.
I offer my hands one more time
To the company who packs their leftovers and drives away,
And to the company who stays behind, under the tall grass,
Left in the restless turning of what we remember of them.
Graves’ recounting of his family’s Memorial Day gathering leaves the reader with a feeling similar to that of humidity–an odd mix of heaviness and hope. He sways back and forth from present to past to present as he weaves a clear picture of all who have convened, “even the ones/ Laid under before our births.” Save for the mention of new children added to the family, Graves does not mention the young, but focuses on the elderly–those who linger to tell of the past and those who have already passed from life to death. This poem caught my attention because as I read it, I remembered a similar day, the day we buried my great-grandmother. Though we shared the rain in common, it was a much colder February afternoon that we gathered in the heavily cedar-wooded plot where generations have said their goodbyes. I felt at home in Graves’ keen awareness of the impact that his forefathers have had on the ensuing generations they were not privileged to know. I often search for my own connections to the past and try to piece together a history that will keep in this fast-paced world of technology and transience.
Jesse Graves will be speaking at the Southern Festival of Books on October 12th, so be sure not to miss the opportunity to meet him there. For further reading on Graves or his poetry, visit Chapter 16 for this interview, Town Creek Poetry’s interview, and his personal site for poems and other info. His two books: Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine: Poems and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 3: Contemporary Appalachia can be purchased on Amazon.