Sample Poems from Cradle Song

When I was four, we drove to Nashville,
Grand Ole Opry-bound, and stopped
the night at a broken down motel
in Tennessee—shag walls,
mossy carpet, dank concrete—
and I remember standing in
the doorway as evening fell,
a busful of believers rattling their way
to the pool for a makeshift
baptism, the Amens and Hear us, Lords
ricocheting through the courtyard
as underwater lights glowed
the pool algae green.

They would come to him, the big
preacher man, and he’d lay
a palm across their foreheads, brace
them at the small of their backs.
They’d release themselves to him:
teethsucking the air before
falling back into salvation,
held under unstruggling and
splashing up anew all gasping
grace and sanctified glory
hallelujah til my mother shut the door
and made me watch tv.

My parents don’t recall it,
but that’s the way
memory works in the South—
the truth is always lying
in some field somewhere between
the bones of the fallen
and the weapons they reach for.

Down South, all it takes
to be a church are some stencils
and a van. And my childhood
was full of them:

The Episcopal litanies of Sunday school
exercises in genuflection,
the low country Southern Baptist pit
of hellfire and damnation

hemming us inside the tent
while just outside,
flies hoverbuzzed above
plattered chicken, slaw, and beans.

Prophets profiteering in spoken
tongues as the Charismatic
wailed and thrashed and shook
their Babel babble down.

In dirt-floored shacks, fevered
believers danced themselves
into a frenzy, coiling snakes like copper
bracelets dangling from their wrists

spit-cracked lips and boot heel clog,
the bass line itself almost enough
to give you back your faith.
Grape juice in Dixie

cups, cardboard host, backwashed
wine, this grit who’d been told
to be still and learn
was never any closer to God

than when I stood at the back of that
whitewashed clapboard A.M.E. I could only
ever visit: The preacher pacing the worn
strip of rug, pleading, Help us, Lord,

teach us how to love,
sending testified ripples that washe
over heads nodding bobs
on the waves of his words:

choir rocking, feet stomping, peace
only to be found in the swing skirt of shimmy
and the big-bellied voices booming it holy
in the gospel of move and know sway.

When I missed the South the most, I’d take
to dating one of its sons: gentlemen
callers who held the door
with tapered fingers or rough
field hands. What I was looking
for was never to be found
in them, just something like it,
the way a lake can bring to mind
but never be the sea.