Lonesome Appalachian Highway; Evening Walk after Listening to Marvin Gaye
By: Kip Knott
Lonesome Appalachian Highway
for Hank Williams, who died on the road
in the backseat of his car somewhere in
West Virginia, January 1, 1953
I’ve looked for the moon in the sky all night
through the window frosted nearly blind
with the swirls of my slow breathing.
I’d like to think it’s crying for me
tonight, but somehow I know
it’s cheating with all the stars I can’t see.
I know nothing but death
can stop the pain that storms like whitewater
over my bones. Every rut in the road
rattles through me the way thunder
used to shake the windowpanes
of my childhood Alabama home.
Out of the glowing dash up front
I hear myself singing from a lifetime ago,
“Just like a blind man I wandered along,
Worries and fears I claimed for my own . . .”
But there’s nothing God can give back to me.
The light has given in to an everlasting night.
I didn’t think the world could get any
colder. I didn’t think the snow falling
like ashes could blanket me here inside
this car heading north to make the next show.
It’s just a matter of time before frostbite
finds its way inside and stops my heart cold.
Evening Walk after Listening to Marvin Gaye
Ah, mercy mercy me
Oh things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
—Marvin Gaye, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”
My mother played you,
Marvin, over and over again
while she cleaned the house,
wrote letters to her brother in Saigon,
painted posters to protest
Nixon and his war in Vietnam.
Now it’s my turn,
Marvin, nearly 50 years later,
to click the repeat icon on my phone
as I clean the house,
text my mother to check on her,
paint posters because Black Lives Matter.
At the end of another long,
socially distant day, I turn the music off
and step outside for an unfiltered breath.
All around me, the wind conducts
the music of the world: snare brush pines,
washboard shagbarks, the supple strings of the river.
The song the rain sings—
high and pliant as a quivering saw blade—
becomes a mourning cry.
Even fog rising from the water,
its shapeless body dancing up and up, sings
a hushed song before it joins the dark.
I put my ear to the air and listen deep.
In the distances of the night,
I hear all the ways we still hurt the world.
Kip Knott’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Flash Fiction Magazine, (mac)ro(mic), New World Writing, and ONE ART. His debut full-length collection of poetry—Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, and so on—is available from Kelsay Books. His second full-length collection of poetry—Clean Coal Burn—is forthcoming later in 2021, also from Kelsay Books. More of his work may be accessed at kipknott.com.
“Lonesome Appalachian Highway” is the third poem that I’ve written after watching Ken Burns’ documentary Country Music. All during the scenes that focus on the tragic early death of Hank Williams, I kept wondering what must have been going through his mind as he died in the back seat of his Cadillac while being driven through the hills of West Virginia during a snowstorm. So I thought the best way to try and understand would be to put myself in his place, which resulted in this poem.
“Evening Walk after Listening to Marvin Gaye” was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020 that saw thousands of people—including my wife, my son, and me—rally every day at the State House in Columbus, Ohio, for nearly two months. These protests reminded me of the Vietnam War protests that my mother used to participate in back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and how, sadly, not a lot has changed in the fifty years since then.