Long Old Road

Bessie Smith, September 1937

From here to home an empty stretch
of Mississippi mud. Step on it,
driver.
Ten years after the great flood
& everything still smells musty.
Could be
the Delta’s always like that—
overbearing sun fathering
cotton clear to the horizon,
rich black soil deeper than memory
& never a stone to throw.
The moody river & its serpent brood of bayous.

But I stay too long in any one place
& it heats up until I can hardly think
without boiling over, the fat
hits the fire & the whole
joint catches hell.

I need two bodies—the other
a refuge of Arctic relief for this
weary one, this jinxed & ginned
smoked glass-translucent skin
they spend a week’s wages to see
in the glare of gas lamps.
And the voice they skip revival for—
sure it’s mine. But the way
it takes hold of me sometimes
like a dog with a piece of old rag,
shakes me from head to foot,
I don’t know. That’s when I give
the word, hire a car
or hitch up with the next train out.

Keep moving. In all this flatness
I stand out like a bug.
But the moment I close my eyes
I’m stepping up to my house
back in Tennessee. With a sweet
soft absence of sound
I ease into the dark parlor,
my furs & silks whisper to the floor,
there’s the briefest of rattles as I slide
the deadbolt home.

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