Summer cedar stacks swarming with black widows
require fire to disinfect them. There isn’t anything subtle
about buying a gallon of lighter fluid to erase a pasture.
I’ve inherited these fields, this task, this burning, though
I think of cicadas—their crisp, brown molting like a string
of foreskins—instead of dead spiders. I can hear them
singing while the fire crackles. Sometimes I’m sure
they created the world & re-demonstrate this with each
resurrection, little gods of shedding the past for the future.
What must I lose to become more like them? Memory
for a start, they say. & ownership—you must give that up too.
My great-grandfather bought several thousand acres
but was buried near them rather than beneath them.
He had a highway park named after him until
somebody pissed on the picnic tables, & the weeds
grew so high it no longer mattered. I’ve become skeptical
of the word possession & imagine barbed wire choking
a goat’s neck as its definition, reconsider the ashes
my father once left in our freezer which turned out
to be his sister’s, & remember how here when
you say a man’s first name you say his last name:
Davis, Lee, Jackson, Johnston, Beauregard, or Forrest.
Describing who I am requires admitting history has
a deep-seated claim upon me. I cannot escape it.
Each piece of flint struck to flint ignites friction & grief
& fire, reckoning around me. The rain cannot stop it.
Only I can stop it, & not before cleansing a whole
portion of my skin in bright orange flame as a kind
of penance. What I’m trying to say is black widows
defending a cedar stack remind me of my whiteness.
Experts at concealment, they spend years in a dry patch
of wood, isolated even from neighbors, & attack what
they touch for a chance, albeit a brief one, to flourish.
• • •
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J. SCOTT BROWNLEE is the author of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize, 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters, and a finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award. His chapbooks have received the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize, and his poems appear in the Kenyon Review, Narrative, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. He teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member and is a founding member of The Localists.