To be born a slave but to have known
the taste of freedom is bitter, a tang of existence
like the grit of blood in a clear river,
like steel in your hands—gun-metal freedom,
that can be given or taken away.
Deprived of freedom, the body still keens,
breathes in the wind, picks up its scent,
longs for sweet pain, and marches
with the infantry of death.
I knew long ago the betrayal of fate.
Turning its face from me, it left me for dead
face down in a river, with just my own hands
to pull me out.
Bands of cold steel press into my skin—
my skin, merely a gunshot in a dark coda,
fingerprintless. This shell, a powder keg
alive within—charcoal and fire,
I lost myself for a long time, for years
amongst the high towers of white
cotton and castles. Living,
I refused to remember.
I pressed away memories in the fields,
turned my face from the call of ravens
waiting on fence posts and church steeples
and on the handles of plows.
I shut out the soul, collecting memories like lashes of the whip.
The little woman and the children she bore,
who slept beside me in the row house,
were they merely flesh and blood?
Made from parts of me I cannot keep?
I know they are dead, but I wish I could have kept
a lock of hair, a cotton scrap, not the hazy memory
of their smell, the sweet tangle of their feet on the cot,
their smiles at sunrise.
What had they to smile about?
Specters haunt the earth. Shadows broken
away from the sun. Rangers without bodies
to return to. But I know this much,
they are free while I am chained
to the never-ending pain of life’s riven fane.
Where is the promise of my years?
In sleep memory rages, claws
my eyes, sears my nostrils,
hisses in my ears.
— Holly Walrath
Holly Walrath attended the University of Texas for her B.A. in English and the University of Denver for her M.L.A in Creative Writing. She is a freelance editor and the Associate Director of Writespace, a literary center in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Abyss & Apex, Pulp Literature, and Grievous Angels, among others.
Tags: Holly Walrath, Poetry