Mountain Laurel; The Sun Here
By: Clay Steakley
Mountain laurel, poplar, sycamore, persimmon.
My father names the trees as we walk uphill.
“I think all our land is uphill.” Our old joke.
We wear uncomfortable boots. The leaves are slick
And he cuts a walking stick. Beech, he says.
Chalcedony, shale, limestone karst.
These woods are old. The mountain is older.
Before the wars and before the Yuchi and Cherokee,
Before the old growth, before the mammals,
There were Paleozoic seabeds. Geologic upthrust.
Winged elm, shagbark hickory, honey locust.
From this flat place on the bluff, my father casts
His big hand to the east, then swings it west,
Encompassing distant woozy mountains.
“You could see the sun rise and set from here.”
Gypsum, saltpeter, bituminous coal.
Below us, tides of air boom and eddy in the cove
That sits above the cavern with its vast room,
Great subterranean arena where cavers dangle
From ropes, and blind crayfish grow philosophical.
Screech owl, chimney swift, common nighthawk.
We will build a cabin here, we say. We’ve been
Saying that for thirty years. My father is seventy-three.
He jokes about buzzards overhead. He mops sweat.
We wonder about wells, solar panels, outhouses.
Black maple, white oak, yellow birch, blue ash.
The wind ragdolls the trees on the bluff,
It roars like the Big Sur surf. It kettles the buzzards
And it snaps our shirts. We shout for joy and
The trees below dance in their bowled ballroom.
Turkey vulture, American crow, Cooper’s hawk.
Turkey Scratch Road. Turkey Cot Cove.
Trochees in the names, shadows on the ground.
Wheeling things. Shapes of eagles on the leaves,
Buzzards on beer cans, spent shotgun shells.
Gondwana, Pangaea, Laurasia.
Alleghanian orogeny: Africa and North America collide.
Plateaus buckle into geologists’ erogenous cartography.
Carboniferous forests leave ghosts that are fossils, are coal.
People leave mounds, slave shacks, monuments, mines.
Muscogee, Scots-Irish, Senegambians.
A mountain does not grow anxious, it does not want.
A mountain is a buddha. It is a world. It is an old dog.
A mountain bears the insults of people as it bears weather.
A mountain is a drum, struck only once, that still reverberates.
Calfkiller River. Bone Cave. Rock Island.
He raises a hand again, now to his eyes, to watch
The buzzards. My father’s hands are carved hickory,
His knuckles burls. His face is sandstone, his eyes are flint.
My father is seventy-three. We will build a cabin.
The Sun Here
The sun here does not saturate the town In the manner of our old occidental exile, Directionless and ubiquitous, a gold lamé Cocktail dress spread on a balcony floor. Instead, here, the sun highsteps her way From the river to the hills, casting her eye On this roof or those mirrored windows, Making manors of bungalow subdivisions. She gives her favor alternately, seasonally, To the Cumberland floodplain where I was A boy, the radio towers, gospel churches, Prep schools, nursing home sitting rooms. The place you and I first woke together, Foreheads touching, inexplicable smiles Splitting our baby cheeks. Such kisses. It was an attic apartment, do you remember? She shines on the old drugstore where the Lunch counter sit-in turned violent. There are loft apartments there now. Artist lofts, they call them, at six figures. She shines on our stubborn ghost places, The old slave markets downtown, the fort, Hospital 15 — the pest house where the Civil War prostitutes died. The gallows. Shines on the bridge our friend jumped from, The road named for the classmate (friendly fire), My cousin’s last hospital room, the lonely House where they found my lonely teacher. The casualties of honkytonks and churches, Of Southern hospitality and Old Jim Crow. All the secret debris this amnesiac boomtown Sweeps into its carpetbag, under the dollars. She tries to reach Athena, modeling her Own gold dress in her bewildered bedchamber, Her colonnaded cement simulacrum, Small victory in one hand, aegis at the other. She tries to reach any good goddess of reason, Of whom there are many in this good city, She favors them, lighting their faces, Pooling in the seashell curves of their ears. Evening approaches, and trees cast crisp Elongated shadows, fireflies venture forth, Or jack-o-lanterns, Christmas lights winking. All little imitations of the lady sun, flaring up Before night turns up the collar of her Pea coat, begins her highshouldered patrol Along the avenues, with her quilt of constellations, Crooked smile, her perfect, unfathomable black.
My writing has been published alongside Aimee Bender and Lauren Groff in Slake, as well as in the journals Fiction Fix, From the Depths, and Waxing & Waning. I was a finalist for a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship, and received the Ruby P. Treadway award for creative writing from Belmont University. I've been an actor, musician, day laborer, and arts journalist, publishing in magazines including Paste and Performing Songwriter Magazine. I recently returned from a long and delirious exile in Los Angeles to my hometown of Nashville, where I live with my wife and daughter, and work as the senior writer for a design firm. “Mountain Laurel In the late 1960s, my father bought some wooded acreage on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, near where he grew up. He and I have been camping and hiking on this property for as long as I can remember. We've talked of building a cabin there since I was a child, and we've never quite gotten around to it. I wrote this poem after my father and I found ourselves on top of a bluff ideal for a cabin site. At the same time I love this land, I'm aware of the complicated history of any land in the United States, particularly in the South. Any American property's history doesn't begin with our purchase of it, nor does it begin with the European colonists who took it from indigenous people and forced enslaved people to work upon it. Here, I tried to access the tension between the privilege that allows me to enjoy this property and its human history by looking at it through geological time. The idea that a mountain is its own creature, its own innate civilization, and it has seen much before me and will continue to see much after me opens some space to consider that geology and genealogy can be more intimately connected than they may appear. The Sun Here I have a complicated relationship with my hometown. I was born in Nashville, Tennessee and lived here for over thirty years before moving away for more than a decade. When my family returned a couple of years ago, I didn't recognize the city. Gentrification, rapacious development, and a booze-soaked tourist industry with a very dark energy seemed to have wiped the old city off the map. I love this city and its people, and I love its confusing, guilty and weird history — which is in danger of being erased with every new hotel or co-opted cultural element. After reading Tiana Clark's stunning poem, "Nashville" in The New Yorker, I felt empowered to explore my own relationship to the city. To remember the people and places I have lost, where I have loved, to honor where people of color and the poor and working classes have built lives for generations before being shoved aside for profit. To remember that we have a great deal still to learn from our bloody past, even as it is covered in another layer of inequality and profit.”