Here, the earth with its own compositions:
the wheep-wheep-wheeps of
the American avocet;
mirror-waters flushed by red-eared turtles;
wind humming the black willow woodwinds;
trumpet creepers’ sirensong.
Here in the realm of the swamp where light
but still and my father’s mother warned him
never enter, each whisper of his machete
promises the city of conquistadors
paved with gold cobblestones, rivers of liquid ivory,
Ponce de Leon
and his crew aged not a day.
Here, Shreveport, Louisiana, 1958, where instead of glory
he finds the cottonmouth hung like tinsel
with the violet blooms of sharp-winged monkey flower,
its blood by those few rays of sun
that finger through the willows, my father approaching
sweeps of his blade.
Imagine that moment for the serpent,
its sudden wakened eye
black as a poppy seed,
then that banded machinery of scales,
the clap of its jaw unhinged to action.
Gravity holds little dominion over the dedicated body
and it’s almost comical
the way my father mimes
how it struck, reaching slow-motion with his left arm,
two fingers transformed
into fangs, his eyes
and mouth growing into large Os
as he twists away from the strike,
right arm swinging down
just in time through the air
that here, in our living room—
another Christmas Eve, another birthday—
is nothing more than air
but in that swamp became a flickering:
the reels of his future spinning before him
like wartime clips of men dropped toward France,
their parachutes iridescent jellyfish in the night.
There, in the swamp, he saw Vietnam bird’s-eye-view
from the pages of an Atlas:
serpentine coastline of the South China Sea;
a row of bodies lined up along a dirt road;
draft card a declaration of flame in his grasp.
my father and the snake:
a dreamy image of the day my sister would bolt
out the back door and he’d
search the neighborhood
for hours, fearful he’s lost her;
two years later to the
AM of my birth, body blue
and red with meconium and blood, the screams of this child
for once welcome,
skull warped with labor, gauzy
as a milkweed’s seed pod.
The swamp will show you things.
Then the machete and cottonmouth met,
and the snake split in half, the blood of it splayed
streams of black, the flat medallion of the wound
like a plastic model of the cell: a nucleus of bone
surrounded by tissue, nerves, and chaos.
Here he stands. Still. Shocked he cannot reverse
what he’s done. Stop! his mind had ordered. But here
the mind holds little over fate.
Here, had he stepped miles back with his left foot
rather than his right
as he entered the sway
of black willows,
he’d be the one clutching at his struck face, virus
chambers of his mind,
swamp waters rising,
and it would be the cottonmouth seeking another
settled in the waters, certain in the ever-chambers
of its mind of what it’s done,
as the gold domed cells of black willows,
as the kuk-kuk-kuks of herring
my father thinking of his mother
who’d only taught him the little she
as he turns to hack that snake into its smallest parts,
the ink of it spreading across the water’s
Retreating, he matches each footstep that brought him here
and when he emerges
from that waving,
unbalanced world, the hard-packed earth of the non-swamp
holds everything higher
so that when he looks skyward
the barn swallows dip lower, wings fluttering,
catching some air, then
My father not yet my father. The earth’s slow turning.