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Two Poems by William Heath

The Town

Outside the town you’ll come
to Bobby’s Welding Service—
Peppermint Lounge, the Cherokee Motel,
Bubba’s Bar-B-Q, Bel Air Court,
Alfonso’s Steak house with the plaster
steer on the roof. In the square you’ll see
the stopped clock on top of the courthouse,
a cast-iron Johnny Reb on his cement pillar,
shirt-sleeved merchants in doorways,
grainy wood-carved faces of country people
in coveralls, the pursed lips, pinched faces
of smug-minded local biddies, the tragic
faces of black folk, lean men slouching
in straw hats, the fat women in red calico,
ragtag and bobtail children with sullen eyes.
Good old boys in work shirts, jeans, boots,
CAT diesel visored hats look with tense muscles
and inchoate hate out of dull gunmetal blue eyes
at sidewalks steaming in shimmering heat.
When one man speaks they all laugh.
The squat sheriff leans on his white machine,
blinking old, cold, yellow-green lion eyes
against the glare, without a clot of recollection
of the night he clubbed a screaming black man
down on the courthouse lawn. The whole town
listened—and re-elected him.

The Mansion

for William Faulkner

Walk down a mile-long lane,
an arching tunnel of trees,
old moss-bearded cypress.
Suddenly the gaunt, gutted
soot-blackened shell
of the great house itself
rises in a grove of white oaks.
Wisteria clings in tatters
from the rotted wooden trellis.
Remnants of bougainvillea
lean against the lengthy veranda
once arrayed with wicker chairs.
Here a white man sat napping
and his son leaned against a pillar,
drinking from a decanter,
as a black man mows the lawn.

Out in the fields stooped slaves
bent over picking the rows,
dragging their long cotton sacks
through the dust behind them,
unmindful of the red-eyed driver
flicking his whip in the air
and the stern overseer sitting up
straight on his sweating horse.

White paint flicks off
the rotting portico, plaster
scales from exterior walls.
The collapsed staircase
with its broken bannister
clutters the barren hall
once lined with stamped leather
imported from Spain. Hand-
hooked rugs once covered
the cypress floors. There was
French Walnut furniture,
oil portraits of ancestors.

Behind the summer kitchen,
the scuppernong arbor
and the skeletal chimneys
of broken-backed out buildings—
fallen stables, gin house,
blacksmith shop, slave quarters.
The formal gardens where ladies
once walked in frail brocades,
twirling their parasols,
are all over-grown, the stone
well is choked with weeds.

A cool breeze through crisp leaves
whispers to you as you depart
the sonorous defeated names
of gone old ghost times.

William Heath has published two chapbooks, a book of poems, three novels, an award-winning work of history and a collection of interviews with Robert Stone. Visit his website here.

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