Selections from Descent
Night sky arcs, an upturned bowl
splattered with stars. This week
if all goes as planned, I’ll be an aunt.
Jan 8 Wednesday 1890 (Bob Hubert’s diary)—
Peggy got home last night. She has been on a visit to her kin in Houston ever since the 23rd Dec. Planting oats to day.
I will tell my nephew what I cannot know:
When Peggy left, Jim Crow
comb stayed home. Bucked
the brass tooth, hair raged loose.
She came back singing “We Born
To Die” night after night. I will tell my nephew
I do not know the tune, but I will sing it for you.
The bowl was rocking overhead.
She could not cry, head
filled with water, her face a bog. Not
that it’s a sorrow song—some hymn, prayer
to a god she must have believed in though I do not.
We born to die, she sang, shuck mop aloft,
raising red dust. “All of us,” she said, “but One.”
I do not know the tune, but I will hum
it for you. Jim Crow comb stayed home, sky
that Christmas an upturned bowl.
I want to think that when the witness
tree leaned into the ledge, it heard her heart
stop between one breath and the next.
The day they buried Peggy, all the trees
were whispering, the chinkapins and loblolly
pines. Did she miscarry, bleed to death
while Bob or Plunk saddled the horse, rode
miles panting after the doctor in town? Did she recall
her mother’s twenty pregnancies and bite her lips
her tongue the quilt and finally the bedpost lest
her daughters hear her scream and come too close? Did she rage
deliriously through the shakes? Bloat from dropsy or hack
through a consumptive fit? Or did she take her own life—
swallow strychnine or arsenic, hang herself from a beam, clench
a shotgun between her teeth?
Peggy sometimes spoke in whispers. Sometimes
she did not speak at all but just said “Uh huh,”
leaning hard on the last syllable, or “Sho’ did,”
with all her weight on the first. Sometimes
if Bob looked closely, he would see a thought blow
across her face. Once he might have tried to squeeze
it out, but a woman is not sugar cane you can run
through a mill, its secrets easily expelled.
Today I plucked a whippoorwill from down
the bottom of the well. Her neck was broke
but still she hollered out her name. “Get.
The burst of freedom came in June. Go yon-
der way,” I said.
Once when she was sixteen, Peggy finished cooking the hominy and drew pictures with ashes left on the hearth.
The photographer’s walls are papered with tintypes. There are
women in crisp new collars, shiny buttons climbing in rows
nearly to their throats. One woman, barely more than a girl,
wears three carnations pinned to her dress, and if it weren’t
for the vaguely delineated petals you would almost mistake
the carnations for cotton just plucked from the boll. There are
men with manicured beards, bewildered-looking children, and
one infant who couldn’t have lived even a year, lying
motionless on a curved black sofa, eyes closed, her coral
necklace painstakingly tinted pink. Bob is fixated on this
photograph, and later when he sits for the portrait, it is this
he will be thinking of—not the living boy Plunk beside him
nor the cedar tree he planted at his wife’s grave nor the Fifth
New York Zouaves at Second Manassas with their red blouse
pants, how so many lay dead and wounded on the ground that
afterward General Hill said the battlefield looked like a bed of
roses. No, he will be thinking of the two small coffins he built
in the years just before the war, the sticky August heat and the
heft of the saw through cedar wood. And then Plunk will say
“Sir?’ or is it “Papa?” and he will look up, hearing the
photographer whistle a song Jenny used to sing during her
second, fatal pregnancy, a song he’d thought he heard on
Peggy’s lips once only, just after his return. Then the whistling
will stop, and the photographer will emerge from behind the
camera, with one hand raising the black cloth.
That moon ain’t hiding—cloud’s a shawl. Moon’s cold
as brass, tacked upside night’s frock. Pin your tears
to her, they’ll sing like chimes. Or ghosts that cry,
Sometimes I feel I’m ah-almost gone—
ghosts charred in dead men’s lust. Think I’m some fool
got brains of shucks? Since freedom I been through
the toughs. See, one moon casts your shadow twice:
once toward the bottomland, once toward the pines.
The wind’s right smart, but moon, she sly. Look: light-
ning bugs, they spark, but they cannot catch fire.
Note: Descent is a book-length manuscript, forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press in 2020. The project began when I acquired copies of the diaries of my great-great-grandfather, Robert Wallace Hubert, called Bob. Hubert was a Confederate veteran who returned to East Texas after the Civil War to have children by three of his former slaves, who were also sisters. One of those sisters was my great-great-grandmother, Peggy. Other parts of the manuscript have appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The Brooklyn Rail, Cream City Review, Hyperallergic, Jaded Ibis Press’s Scarlet, and in a limited-edition broadside from Oxeye Press.
Lauren Russell’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, came out from Ahsahta Press in 2017. Her second book, Descent, will be out from Tarpaulin Sky Press in 2020. Lauren is also the author of the chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012). A 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry, she has also received support from Cave Canem, The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, VIDA / The Home School, the Rose O'Neill Literary House, the Millay Colony, and City of Asylum/ Passa Porta. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day, boundary 2, The Brooklyn Rail, Cream City Review, and Bettering American Poetry 2015, among others. She is a research assistant professor and is assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.