Breaking through the Southern heat.

“… we never lifted our eyes from the depths

till the boss man said Lunch and the world

came back …”

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Work: Savannah Roots

                           ————-          in memory of Phil Levine & Royce Smith


    —–Except for the scrubbed month

    ——-     ——- chilled in Mr. Dunham’s tiled fluorescence

peddling spikes, bats, gloves,

it was ditch digging, old style, with shovel and pick.

    ——-     ——- In the cut across the Esso slab

    ——- after Melvin’s jackhammer, the pair of us


    ——-     ——- swung and jammed like Milledgeville crazies.

One hundred plus in the blinding Georgia sun

    ——- would prove our manhood

single file behind men who’d been at it

    ——-     ——- for decades putting food on tables.

    ——- “You betta slow down,” Louis said that first day,

    ——- “you boys gonna fall out.”

Royce sneered and swung the pick and I stomped

    ——-     ——- the shovel with a football growl

and soon we were alone in the trench

    ——-     ——- all of them knew wasn’t safe anymore.

    ——- Most days we laid conduit.


    ——- For awhile we bailed a manhole

that filled back up every weekend. Ma Bell

    ——-     ——-  took us off that job after nearly a month

of nothing. I was five hundred miles north

    ——-     ——-  in Shakespeare when Earl died in the cave-in.

    ——- — Sam grabbed that live wire

    ——-     ——-  before Royce graduated. The rest of them

kept at it through hangovers

    ——- and divorces, Friday night scraps,

short trips to the lockup. By August we were all

    ——-     ——-  slow and steady, sweat pouring off us

    ——- like the promised waters

    ——-     ——-  of mercy as we hacked the black serpents

of the live oak roots. Earl sometimes

    ——- keened a tune not quite gospel. Some days


we never lifted our eyes from the depths

    ——-     ——- till the boss man said Lunch and the world

    ——- came back—shady squares hung with moss,

    ——-     ——- pines and palms and tarnished heroes

in uncool hats. “You Savannah boys now

    ——- singed black as these nigras,” one flabby foreman

hissed. Melvin’s face was stone. Royce’s

    ——-     ——-     deep tan burned. We dangled our boots

    ——- in the slit, hip to hip for chow,

    ——- sardines, pig’s feet, pimento cheese, bruised

    ——-     ——-  apples out of paper bags, pretended

we’d all stay at it to the crack of doom,


    ——-     ——-   that some of us wouldn’t go

off north to read a bunch of books. So much

    ——- laughter! How did Sam finish

that story about the deaf girl

    ——-     ——-   and the donkey? Oh, each of us

    ——- was clever in his own silly way, all of us

    ——-  sharing that huge swamp stink,

    ——-     ——-      and clowning like the Bard’s gravediggers

in the heavy, sodden air.


[“Work: Savannah Roots” was first published in Plume.]


Ron Smith is a former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Currently Writer-in-Residence at Saint Christopher’s School in Richmond, he is the author of the books Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (to be issued this year in a second edition from MadHat Press) and three books from LSU Press: Moon Road, Its Ghostly Workshop, and The Humility of the Brutes. In 2018 he was a Featured Poet at the American Library in Paris, where he also read new poems in the Salon Eiffel on the Eiffel Tower. He contributed to Broad Street’s“Rivals & Players.”

Swamp roots by Bud Ellison, 2018.