Aside from being a two-term U.S. senator and a Confederate general, [Edmund] Pettus was a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. When legislators decided to name the bridge after him in 1940 . . . there’s no mistaking the message they wanted to send. . . to brand it—with this vision of the South as . . . a world dedicated to white supremacy.
—MELANIE PEEPLES, “Code Switch,” NPR
We all live in the same house.
—CONGRESSMAN JOHN LEWIS
A bridge is not a dwelling place,
not the way the body is a dwelling:
The skull is hard, the bones are hard, the fists,
the billy clubs against the ribs.
Th e hooves are hard, breath coming hard,
and the pavement where the stains
won’t wash for weeks between steel pylons.
The pulse is hard, shoved and burned against concrete.
Fields and clouds will crack open fragile places.
The skin feels its so softest edges and wants to make
a break for it, run centuries ahead to solid ground,
witness the collapse of parabolas, the curved spine
wrecked like a dragon’s back worn slick to its marrow.
A bridge is a slow place,
stanchions sunk deep in the mud-braked banks,
the rivets with their mildewed undersides.
Waiting yawns like the breath of night,
patience dark as top soil.
Sidle up to the side, and look down at the river
the way the stars look down
and move on. Everything--
just like that purling water—always changes.
Even that kind of stubborn forever some believe in
will change, even a namesake name, threatening
and pondering, even the smell of clean laundry
on top of iron-blood rust and salt sweat,
black and white revived in colors of dawn.
The weakest points shore up, redeemed by flesh.
The ear pinned and listening
against the pavement hears that old story
of the tenderest places most easily torn apart,
most easily beloved, where one human touches another human,
that architecture of the next moment as it comes to pass.
SUSAN O’DELL UNDERWOOD directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University near Knoxville, Tennessee. She and her husband, artist David Underwood, recently began a small publishing company, Sapling Grove Press. Besides two chapbooks, she has published work in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Oxford American, Rock & Sling, Still: The Journal, The Greensboro Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee.