Back in the woods after a week’s steady rain,
I look for what newly pushes up
through the mulch of deep leaves, bark,
& whatever else has died & fallen.
By a crumbling tree, what was,
weeks ago, a flared sulphur spectacle,
chicken mushroom, unmistakable,
is now a jellied, browning mess, putrid already,
& full of insects whose work is to make
food of decay, as the mushroom did in its turn.
It’s such a bustle of transformation, I won’t even
prod it with my toe to see what happens.
Somewhere overhead, a cloud shifts, or the wind,
a flickering door opens on the ground ahead,
clearly a shape of light thrown through leaves,
as clearly a way into a place I will never see again.
Each step sinks in leaves layered on each other
like the years of a life—
rich & fertile with decomposition
& the living evidence of the only constant I know
from observation, the way life uses death,
grows up through it, flowers, seeds itself,
& lays itself down in its turn. I had wanted
to taste my first wild mushroom,
but I was too late. Anything might appear in its place.
How could I forget? The dog reads the ground,
snorting & blowing leaf dust—she pulls
to the full length of the leash, pulls me
through the door of light, down avenues
of imminent death & rot. Her wish
is to keep moving, following out a scent
& sampling another, each a promise & a history,
each better than the last, too good not to try.
Along Amtrak’s Southern Crescent, tin-roofed houses,
industrial storage, factories, rust-riveted machines
that whine to life tomorrow for the aching work-week.
Green-grey clouds piling tropical towards the start
of summer’s violences, the flood drains gurgle & ditches
stagnate in the chemical-green bloom of algae.
In noon sun, a group of darkening boys,
bikes at the ready by the tracks, gesture at us
who are framed in the windows of the trundling
metal intrusion, themselves framed long enough
that I watch each boy’s threshing blur of skinny arms,
feet & hands the size of men’s almost,
palms hardening in dimes at each finger’s base.
The scene changes too quickly to see
if they mean to cheer us on or to protest us.
The group’s united only by the eye’s making a picture
out of separate pools of light, transcribing
road & crossroad, the parallel footpath,
the flat, rigid ladder of track overlying swamp
& open water, liquid floored forests, tea-dark.
Stolen topsoil lines the reticent bayous,
the Atchafalaya basin speaks in shifting Atlantises,
temporary, unmappable, dividing the waters.
Those long phrases of streams & channels
emerge & recede as the train passes,
their plots abandoned in the low branches dying
under garlands of Spanish moss & what
those ragged lines refuse. Waters
only navigable by ones or twos in motorless skiffs
who find the way by nerve & fickle light,
by disbelief in the finality of being lost:
wakes smoothing out to catch the leaves
describe the departure of some undaunted naturalist
who took the long, slow way inside,
the way that turns & is overgrown, that opens
like stadia & closes like coffins overhead,
that shows, sometimes, to the patient eye,
a single, shy, disappearing species of wader
probing for food at knotty roots in its chapel
of just enough light to see by.
From the train, I see the trees tilt & crowd,
scoured & splintered like gravestones,
the wakes subside & branches knit across the heart
of this wetland whose waters rise & rush
to consume us rushing away on the tracks,
elevated, efficient, longing—. & I see, too,
these expanses where the deep swamp
opens to summer’s offices, fields lush
to the horizon, the baking scent of damp earth
alive on my tongue. Against the green
& dimming sky, like desire
hunting, huge cattle egrets lift & plunge.
JENNIFER BROWN lives with her partner and a funny-looking dog in NC but is itching for the day when they hit the open road and land in Vermont, Alaska, and many points between. She has taught creative writing and literature in high schools, colleges, summer programs, and festivals and has held residencies at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. In 2018, she won the Linda Flowers Literary Award from the NC Humanities Council. Her essays and poems have appeared in North Carolina Literary Review, Copper Nickel, and Cagibi, and are forthcoming in L.A. Review, Cimarron Review, and Cinncinnati Review. Her first poetry collection, “Natural Violence,” is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021.