Middleton Place

Tree bigger than Whitman’s live oak lonely
as himself in a furnished room, here in the unknown
years before an Englishman came upriver with
shackled slaves. Tree thick with indifference
at the edge of camellia allées, gnarled ascent
clutched by resurrection fern above the rice
fields once an unflooded earth before seeds
for partridge berry or trillium or violets
ferried across an ocean and became the hoards
dying in torrid summer. Tree before hoe,
harrow, flail, roots humped like workers
rising with their backs to the sun, the crepe
myrtle only recently big, now two hedges further
from incessant shade. Tree before “agrarian,”
“parterre,” “malaria,” “leisurely spirit”
the whip of an age, before aproned dark women
bury a brass-edged leather trunk in the terraced
garden, tucking away the miniature portrait
of Washington, his high collar tattered
as Confederate dollars and the gilt-framed
lagoons of Venice wrapped in drapes from Belgium—
a row of slave houses no longer crowded with prayer,
lives twisting into yarn, suddenly a voided
grief, while raucous Union troops pour
off boats on the Ashley River, their oiled
torches blooming in late morning to stifle
the cool composure of vast rooms with blue flame.




The art pretty poor. Faded, splotched statues with broken
genitals. Tall portrait of a poet simpering down on us with pity
because we’re out of step, our words don’t scan. But a few original
sculptures—two swans twisting their necks into a lover’s braid.
Calder’s girl scratching her foot. On the first floor, behind the stairs,
a bronze Russian mother clasps her child in 1927, ten years after
the Revolution, the mobbed streets, the smoke. There’s a gap
in the chocolate cornice on the south wall, where another wall
separated violent voices, something seditious ceded from the heart,
pocket doors closed on argument; servants rushed away with the best
porcelain. In a niche that was the velvet space around a Ming vase,
a red-framed window opens on the city’s quaintest square. Unemployed
black men light up, lounging on benches. Gawking strangers roll
past in tourist trolleys. Everywhere a dark light plugged in the
mouths of cannons. Another period room. Scenes on block-printed
wallpaper repeat themselves—the same cathedral again, again. Pinched
liturgy of towers, clouds twinning themselves, a river, a tradition
feeding on itself, evenly flowing through faint seams, a boatman
and his doubles poling their way toward an esplanade, all these ladies
ballooning in the same dresses, waiting with insipid eyes, as if
uncomprehending that wherever they turn, they see themselves
and all of us, the stained mirror in its gilt Rococo frame
returning the one scene upon frilled scene, the one time only.
More than a hundred years ago, General Sherman requisitioned
the grille-worked home down the street. His men billeted themselves
and horses in the cemetery, removing the now blurred tomb stones,
propped them along a wall. Names lifted and leaning away from
their bones. Standing for anonymous earth. For silent dustless
gleam in a museum hall and pastoral drapes that shut out war.



Folly Island

Dig a shallow trench, “To take as it ware our
Lives in our Hands.” What tide there was yet eats
the shore, nudging the skeletons without skulls
or the long bones of the hand or the taste of
cherry bounce, sago, rum. Typhoid fever leaves
little to speak of. They didn’t say much,
settling like center muck in barrels buried
to make wells, a song crumbling in the wind
beneath swaying moss. Carved bullets and tin
buttons still rise to the surface. The leather
forage straps rotted from their caps recently
unbuckled in haste, left on the dank sand,
the tales of their African fathers interred like
grommets from their rubber ponchos. Dead white
officers disbelieved their skills. In this air,
bright flutter of the unit’s F, a brigade
of voices, tattered friends, where the body turns
toward Charleston and the murmur of ghostly guns.

John Allman | Mudlark No. 31
Contents | “You Ain’t Hurryin’ Me