April is Poetry Month, and this year, Xpress is celebrating the designation with a featured poem from a local poet in each issue. We’re starting things off with Wayne Caldwell’s “Pisgah,” featured in his 2021 debut collection, Woodsmoke, which was a finalist for the 2021 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award.
The poem is told in five parts, from the perspective of the collection’s main character and narrator, Posey Green. Along with the poem is a brief Q&A with Caldwell about the piece, environmentalism and Western North Carolina’s influence on his writing.
I’ve always lived in sight of Pisgah’s crown,
Ten or twelve crowback miles from Pole Creek,
The peak a steadfast anchor for my soul.
Twixt here and there green folds of South Hominy’s
Story feel like old friends shadowed by the mountain.
It’s stout, worthy, tall by more’n a mile.
The rock face halfway up they call the bride and groom,
Who after deep snow look pleased as punch to marry.
Two peaks to its left a rat sneaks up the ridge.
A rub-lamped genie could conjure up no better sight
To greet an old man’s eyes at one more weary dawn.
Mister Vanderbilt used to own it. Or at least had a deed,
As if a mere man, even a tycoon, could own such godly land.
Built Buck Spring Lodge, where blueblood guests
Killed deer and bear and buffalo and made their servants
Cook and serve it. I peeked in there as a young’un,
You could set a T-model Ford in the fireplace,
And a bearskin rug looked fit to eat you alive.
Did I say buffalo? Around here? Well, Papa told it,
How Mister Vanderbilt ordered half a dozen,
Male and female, three of each from way out west,
For he thought money cured all ills, even buffalo drought.
I was at Hominy station when them things come off the train.
Big old wooden crates a-snorting and a-grunting and a-growling
Like something inside itched to kill something outside.
Us rag-tag hooky boys (and our teacher, too) dogged them
Horse-drawn carts all the way to a pen up Cut-Throat Gap.
First they let out the buffalo gals, then after they settled down
Busted out the he-beasts, named after various Southern worthies.
But if Dan’l Boone and Varina Davis ever shared a
Lusty look of love I never heard tell. I reckon
The train ride or thin air, one, took the rut out of em.
Soon the poor uprooted beasts starved
Or ran off or just plain petered out.
Some things even a millionaire can’t fix.
I was up Pisgah a fair amount, camped around a deadfall fire
When I could sleep on the ground without being sucked into it.
No poison oak past midway, clear water cold enough to crack your teeth,
Air smelled sharp as a falling axe. Red spruce and he-balsam
Big as smokestacks. You’d see eagles, snakes big around as your arm,
Papa said there was panthers but I never heard one.
Pisgah springs head many a creek full of orange and black spring lizards
And mouth-melting speckled trout, pure waters that birth
Davidson River and the East Fork of Pigeon and South Hominy Creek.
I never have been more taken with a view.
Over a mile high, spy any direction and ask if Moses
Seen better when he looked from Gilead all the way to Zoar.
I kind of doubt it, myself. I like seeing chimney smoke
From Candlertown and Etowah, Brevard and Waynesville.
Promised land, for my people. And we got to go in.
Pisgah’s north side overlooks a valley filled with kinfolk
Intermingled two hundred years, Millers and Davises, Morgans and Israels,
Owenbys and O’Kellys and Greens, proud and stubborn as Germans and Irish
And Welshmen and Scots coiled like a clutch of winter snakes would be.
Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans and Catholics and Jews and I don’t know
What all else. Back yonder some of them helped runaway slaves
And draft dodgers jump the hollers for Tennessee and the road north.
Not long after the war, Jephthah Miller named a boy Ulysses S.,
Which takes a lot of sand, or a chip on your shoulder, one.
Old Jephthah wore out a stout Morgan girl, sired eleven young’uns with her.
His second wife’s Papa was Humphrey Posey Owenby,
Born when lots of boys got named after that old Baptist.
Reckon my mother thought reviving it would give me good luck.
Anyhow, South Hominy’s pretty country, settled by rugged people
Who didn’t care a hang for any kind of gummint.
Just wanted to be left alone at the mill or farm or store
In the shadow of the mountain my father said was mother to us all.
The mountain’s all changed now. Got sold, for one thing,
To the Forest Service, then the Parkway sliced across like a wounded snake.
They tore down Buck Spring Lodge about that time, too,
They must’ve thought Yankee tourists would haul it off
Board by board, rock by rock, and they may have been right.
They put a dern TV tower smack on top in ’54,
Sticking up there blinking red of a night like a whorehouse sign
Just so we could watch “Mister Bill’s Magic Bus.”
Between bad air in the fifties and sixties and them confounded bugs
You got to look hard for balsam or spruce pine now,
And there’s days you can’t hardly see Cold Mountain,
Much less Asheville. I ain’t been up in a while.
When all you see is Floridiots in flowerdy shirts,
Motorcycle men with ponytails, New Jerseys with yipper dogs,
Pouting kids listening to earphones, you don’t go back.
But down here, if you squint just right—and remember—
The tower goes away, the Rat still creeps, and you can almost
Hear an eagle scree before she dives—the Pisgah God meant for us to see.