Harriet Monroe, ed. (18601936). Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. 191222.
The Old South
By John Gould Fletcher
To H. D.
HIGH streaks of cottony-white cloud fill the sky. The sun slips out of the swamp, swinging his heavy-jewelled mace before his face as he plays with the ripples that gurgle under the rotting cypress-knees. The breeze lifts the Spanish moss an instant, and then is still. The sun tosses dew over the ragged palmetto-leaves. Aslant on a gust of warm breeze from the broiling savannah, the song of a mocking-bird floats, a fierce scurry of notes, through the air. The sun seems to be kindling a flare at every point of the horizon. Grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, everything that flits or skims, tunes and trills its shrill violin. Butterflies flutter, broken motes of color; humming-bird and dragon-fly dart green streaks through the quivering sky.
The river rolls boiling and frothing through the lowlands. It is weary of the dull stiff mud-banks that flake away before it in sticky chips; weary of the turbid masses of mud that it must scour away to make its path down to the sea. It gulps and seethes horribly with hungry angry lips, fretting first one bank, then another, as it goes sliding and flopping down the long twisted bends in the fierce glare of morning; deceived no longer at each marsh-outlet and creek and bayou-mouth into thinking that here and not further south must be the clear blue water it seeks, where its heavy burden may fall in peace. The river goes slapping, lapping, rustling the canes of the brake and the motionless cypress trees. A mockingbirds song floats down before it in the breeze.
It is noon, and the carnival, king of fools, rules the city. A beautiful woman, her face cold, haughty, expressionless, the fire in her eyes half hidden, goes dancing down the street with a man whose shape is like an ape. Her feet stir the dust, and it glitters as it settles in streams over her shoulders, like slipping confetti-showers. She is a flower over-weary of the sun. Her perfume is almost gone, and the fever will soon snap her from her stalk and toss her into the tomb. Brass drums toll to her tripping movement. Her skirts sway. Amid their flickering spangles plays a satyr grinning at the multitude. He tears off her frills, and flings them into the gutter choked with filth. Her half-naked form writhes and recoils like a tree before the storm.
The river frowns and lours, for a heavy, fuming dull blue shower races gloomily above it from the southward. As it goes, it throws out at the trees tentacles of curled coppery lightning that enlace and line the branches, and send them crashing downwards with dull powdery explosions of muffled thunder. The river lashes itself into fits, smashing the bank with maddened fists, as it spins the quivering steamer around and nearly sends it reeling aground. It growls, it howls, it shouts its terror of the forest, whose broken logs topple into it with a great splash, swirling and whirling, sucked and crashing in sudden black somersaults, while the storm roars and grumbles away with spattered hail-bullets and noise of affray. Now the forest groans and drips and shrieks with rain that whistles through its branches. Every trickle, every pool, every creek is full. The choked-up torrent overflows, and covers miles on miles of furrows and woods with endless glaring wastes of water. A gaunt pine falls with a sigh and a splash.
Slowly the river resumes its patient march through the lowlands. Now autumn comes, and afternoon seems throwing gray filaments of haze from tree to tree. The old plantation sleeps, for it has nothing else to do. Live oaks are towered about it, drooping heavily, weary of holding up lusty green leaves from year to year. In graves under the live oaks many are sleeping. They have slipped from the dream of life to the dream of death. Perhaps they died for a womans sake, for a sigh, a chance word, a look, a letter, for nothing or for a song that men sing. What matter? Life is a dream; to-day, tomorrow, yesterday, it is the same. Along old floors, underneath mouldering doors, blow light gusts of wind stirring the dust. A mouse cheeps in a corner. Old age creeps upon us and life is gray. The old plantation moulders, day on day. Soon there will be gaps in the floors, and the doors will swing open to all. Let us doze on the levee and feel the breeze as it slips down the river racing past us.
The river runs very fast, for it is bearing sodden logs, like broken lives. The sleepy vultures line the gray cottonwoods that tower above its banks. To them, too, life is a dream. This morning they tore the rank carrion of a dead horse that floated down to them. Death does not matter, for life is defeat, but it is very sweet to have plenty to eat and to sleep in the sunlight. Sleeping and waking, and sleeping again, that is how one learns to live without pain. Let autumn throw dim filaments of regret from tree to tree. Leaves may drop slowly, but the live-oak which drops not its leaves at all is the tree that is planted on graves.
Immortal death is very sweet
When brown leaves fill the dripping gap
Of a broken vault, and the frightened feet
Of mice pit-patter, and owls flap
Out to the cool moonshiny night
Which scatters crushed jewels down the river,
Where trees, dumb-stricken ghosts in flight,
Chatter and shake against each other.
Tinkle-tinkle-dropthe rain that filters through the leaky roof. Under the colonnade, where slaves were sold and bars clinked with gold, runs a tiny stream of water through the dust. Was that a door slamming, or only a torn hanging that flapped? Who knows? Perhaps it was two ghosts who chattered together through agued lips and rattling teeth. Not a dusty bottle in the bar. Marks of muddy boots on the smashed marble. Wind that laughs insanely up the spiral stairways, down the floorless corridors. Let us go, for rain is dropping and the roof is leaking, and I seem to hear a gray frog hopping, while yonder door is creaking as if someone were locked behind it and were whispering to get out. Let us go, for the ceiling sags and will soon be falling, and a black spider is crawling past my face, and rags are drifting about on the floor. Let us go, for a crazy deaf woman, with a bent stick, threatens us in quavering voice, declaring she will strike us for daring to enter her palace. Let us go, and not come back any more. The dead are best dead and forgotten.
The river rolls through fields blossoming with cotton day after day. In a crazy cabin someone is crooning a song. The sun lifts his long jewelled mace an instant, in careless, lazy fingers before his face, and lets it slip away again. Aslant on a chill scurry of rain floats a mocking-birds jangled song. It dies away and leaves only silence, half-enclosing the monotonous drone of a sad hymn of despair which a sleepy negro is humming to himself from nowhere.