Pilot Light
A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism
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Letter to Gabriel Written in the Margins of Murder Ballads
Here is a story in the worst way. I have no business being anywhere in it. 
It comes between me and the life I have coming. 
                                                                        — Gary Lutz
Blood of my abyss, illegible voice, was the morning kind?

The cold dawns here, steaming through. 

I imagine you in a field 
across the river, floodplain attic, 
lichen brailed thin on the pump-house door. 

You are dead in the gallows and not dead, 
the rope cannot claim you. 

It is another century. 

Things are not better or worse.
You came without a horse 
and left us human hair in the tulip tree, 
strange among the blossoms.

For years we weren’t terrified, 
we carried around your death, its severity.

The terror lasts, your grave a wide field now,
but I never thought of it as something separate. 
Jake gone six months, then seven. 
I move through summer, verb for breath, accrue. 

Heat understands, folds into the dashboards. 

A woman is living in her Oldsmobile on Leigh Street.
For weeks she unfolds the traffic,
the shade of an elm pours, devalues, 
all present tense and bending close, 
house to house. There is no explaining
the ghost of a face, then a face.  

What can I give that won’t be taken, 
assembled into guilt? The feral cat 
under the shed archives the rats, then squirrels.  

Gone isn’t the word I’m looking for. 
There’s no other way to say it:
I was built by slaves,
carved skin white-pined 
like sand and tobacco
and the Poteat name
that pulls me from you. 

Say the words
the fields would speak.

The bloodline stops
All the sleeping Poteats. 
All their skin, impossible to see.
All their land and gauzed light. 
All the asphalt and rain between us.
All the kerosene on the carpet, 
kudzu weaving doors shut. 
All great-great-grandfathers gutting 
pigs. All great-grandmothers
throwing sand on the blood. 
All industry siphoned.
All selves creek-banked, collapsed. 
All plantations a coffin, a little vandalism.
The whole family, haunted. 
I’ve played the slave narratives 
in abandoned places —
among the candles 
and cinderblocks.

Silo, dirt, house 
where the vultures live.  

All to bring you back. 

There’s a shopping mall 
where your anvil stood. 

I bought socks, a button-down shirt,
and sat in the parking lot listening
to the corroded wax cylinders —
disintegrating dialects 
becoming a column of air 
anyone can pass through.

I never deserved to hear them.  

[opening incomprehensible, very poor recording until one minute sixteen seconds]
[equipment set-up noise and pause] 
[steam engine toots in background] 
[disc skips] 
[a cat meows] 
[loud gurgling sound] 
[Mrs. Annie Williams sings] 
[loud distortion] 
[she delivers a prayer] 
[microphone noise before Uncle Billy sings] 
[he attempts to sing] 
[the women seem to hold a discussion among themselves] 
[concludes song] 
[Mrs. Williams sings] 
[remainder of recording extremely poor] 
God is ??? of God my ??? 
[recording ends]
Woo-Woo turned a trick in the Rent-a-Toilet 
last night. I watched her pull the man in, 
septic dark pocked with paper towels,
clefts of rain.

The world was one place, then overnight,
it became someplace else.

In other words, this is always going to be
about mine, not yours.

I am teaching myself to see the street
as sleep is seen: 

Woo-Woo with a toothache, jaw looped 
with panty hose. Even mentioning her
is a gentrification. 

I make it sound like I know an answer. 

She is not you and we honor this emptiness. 
When the highway came, the houses 
didn’t know enough to be afraid.
Leeway and ease, night comes 
through the gutters loose as fever.

I don’t believe there is an answer, 
honeysuckle blooming the creek gut. 

There are tunnels leading up from the river, 
dug before the war. Torch ends 
grating in their cups, history averting
into the cellars of abolitionists. 

This is not what I mean to say to you. 
Jake gone eight months, 
even the honeysuckle estranges, 
pleats the afternoon. 

Everything is unfinished, momentary. 
It’s not anyone’s fault, I know. 

We’re all strangers to the middle of the noise.

On Live at Birdland, Coltrane’s Alabama drops 
the snare by the church parking lot at 2:42. 

That’s where the ghosts are, 
waiting with the floor tom, 
a tousled mess of glyph and syllable. 

Child of gravity, stranger to the ground. 
Come down and help me rise. 
The jessamine cut back, the wisteria ordered 
and blunt from the rails. We have to be humble 
or we’re taken down. 

How many examples do you need? 
Soft as milk-shaped light in the halfway house
where the sex offenders live. 

An owl in another country invented night. 

You must remember
this is not about history.

It’s about finding where life enters our deaths. 
I do not bring you to the river beneath the river
because time ruins, a heresy.

The river erases itself when we need it most, 
dawn inside dawn, tar in the throat of the oak, 
a hermit thrush strange and metallic over 
Jefferson Park repeats the vowels its body carves. 
A fine ash of song too far south. 

A house is taken from the landscape 
and the wind blows stronger 
through that space. 
The body can’t signify 
that kind of vacancy. 
Always one of everything here…one bee in the clover, 
one dove on the power line, one mockingbird 
diving into the jessamine to guard its one chick 
that will be dead by Sunday. 

I can see the layers of need 
where I couldn’t before: first a sea, 
an orchard, a corral, a parking lot. 

There is nothing left of the sea here 
but its sound, street cleaner flushing 
the day out, brushes like wings under 
their machinery, star’s blood through 
the pipes under the street, watershed 
of the river and farther out, the bay. 
Jake, gone almost a year. 
Woo-Woo, gone. Feral cat, gone. 

Harry’s down the street fixing 
his station wagon in the cold. 
He said the cops used
my house in the 8o’s to watch 
the dealers on the corner. 

The whole block abandoned back then. 

Sniper in the bay window, dead man 
on the bricks. 19 arrested. 

The black stain on the bedroom floor 
refutes the belt sander, shifts
from history to history,
outliving us, passing deeper. 

Stanley’s drunk again, his walk 
more song than speech.
He asked me once if I was rich. 

The porch fell off Scott’s house
and made the news. Someone’s 
burning wood this evening,
the Masonic Lodge quiet. 

I lean from the window 
to feel it slip past me. 
All of it. 

There is only one year,
and it repeats itself forever.
Forfeit the dead grass, 
the rim of dandelion 
and mortgage. Forfeit 
the factory where the marrow 
is pulled. Forfeit taxonomy, 
the legalese of the law office 
windows at sunset, so many 
heretofores and to wits. Forfeit foreclosure, 
the vacant lots, stairs leading to white 
grass and sunlight. Where houses 
were sewn together, now gone. 
Foundations, the absence 
of ruin is just as quiet, nonbeing 
where was being, remains. 
The old theater on 25th street, 
sunk in ivy, the roof long gone 
or the roof is the sky…either way 
there’s nothing there, saplings crowd
the orchestra pit, mud-wasps 
in the projection booth, flicker of 
pornography and sun hollowing the years. 
I have never been hungry. 

You invented hunger and handed it to the owl,
200-year-old crime-scene tape slung from the bridges. 

What should the new map look like?

Help me, moonlight. 

Bring the granary to the sky, 
burnt yellow called down. 

The night that took you
will take us too. 

For my friend, Jake Adam York.

The “you” being addressed is Gabriel, today commonly – if incorrectly – known as Gabriel Prosser, a literate enslaved blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond, Virginia area in the summer of 1800. Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, and he and an estimated twenty-five followers were taken captive and hanged in punishment.

Norman Dubie:
It is another century. 
Things are not better or worse.

John Coltrane:

Jake Adam York:
becoming a column of air 
anyone can pass through.

Child of gravity, stranger to the ground. 
Come down and help me rise. 

There is only one year,
and it repeats itself forever.

Sound description/transcription from Library of Congress’ Slave Narratives Collection: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/

Gary Lutz:
The world was one place, then overnight,
it became someplace else. 

In other words, this is always going to be
about mine, not yours.

From the film General Orders No. 9, by Robert Persons:
What should the new map look like?