In January 1863, 13 accused Union sympathizers were executed by a Confederate regiment in the Shelton Laurel Valley of Madison County, North Carolina. Having followed the Confederate soldiers to learn the fate of the men and boys who were taken, the women of the valley were caught and stripped of their clothing, tied and beaten, and hung by their necks until they were nearly dead.
The birds spoke slower, then,
the eyes of each bound girl unstoppable.
What became of us was a field,
roads submerged under a tale
of blue, the trees calling each starry
point a lion or a liar, a man pouring
water over heads. Across miles,
we counted leaves gripped low
beneath the storm, orange clouds
shaking the pulse of our throats.
When the last girl lost her center,
the music churning through the fall,
we retraced her steps until the hours
bled into snow, each backward glance
a moan unrecognized, the weather
a ceiling displaying the scene
of what happened, girl after girl
of seasons circling beyond return.
~This poem was previously published in Barrow Street (2010).
Ask me which night and I’ll tell you the static
always slipped from bedroom to field.
In the dark, the wind stirred a neighbor’s voice
and I mistook dust for a circus in moonlight,
counted one hundred bright balloons falling to floor.
Ask me again and I’ll tell you I ran through the crops
as if the walls grew wings, slept across a sky
shipped through mountains. The body burned
softer then, each light from inside flashing
the story of what happened. Ask me and I’ll tell you
I returned at midnight to find what was lost,
the foundation buried beneath September,
every photograph hidden in grass.
~This poem was previously published in The Pinch (2011).
In the last days of summer, practice ran late—
the field more dirt than grass, the drought’s red
markings covering our legs as we sprinted.
Snakes hung from trees near the goalpost
and no girl would dare retrieve loose balls
that flew past the net. Even birds
avoided the trees, searching for food beyond
the stream where a rival team practiced.
Walking home, most nights we followed
the trail we imagined those birds had laid,
listening for the flutter of wings in the dark.
The night before school began, we lingered
in the shadows as a rare rain set in.
I was thirteen and almost in high school.
My back to the team, I paused on the bridge,
the water below long dried up.
I did not register a hand at first, turning
to the face of the town’s only deaf girl
pushing me from the edge.
In my head, I fell over and over, arm
turning mid-air and twisting to its break
while the girl above watched my screams.
My body landed without sound, only the birds
to greet me. No one spoke as they left.
I lay beneath the bridge, calling each one
by name, screaming for someone to stay.
I screamed until they could no longer hear me—
or wouldn’t, I wasn’t sure—my voice echoing
as the girl still stared, my throat unheard, but seen.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
These poems were written the year I moved to Cambridge, England. Most of the poems I wrote during that time were for my chapbook of persona poems about Amy Winehouse, but when I finally paused that project for a bit, I found myself returning to the landscape of my childhood in North Carolina. At a time when so much was moving forward in my life—I was in a new country, on the cusp of getting married while navigating visa applications and starting a new job—I nonetheless found that my writing continued to look back to where I came from. Though the poems are very different in style and content, they still feel linked to me, as all were written during a time when I was intensely longing for the landscape I knew as a child. The emotion in each represents a bit of the homesickness I felt that first year abroad, even though I was not yet ready to write directly about those feelings then.
ABOUT KERRI FRENCH
Kerri French’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrow Street, Mid-American Review, storySouth, DIAGRAM, Sou’wester, Waccamaw, Lumina, Best New Poets, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. Instruments of Summer, her chapbook of poems about Amy Winehouse, is available from Dancing Girl Press. A North Carolina native, she lives and writes outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She can be found online at http://www.kerrifrench.com.