Part I: AT THE FALL
11:00 P.M., Tuesday, September 30, 1919:
The Hoop Spur Lodge Of The Progressive Farmers And Household Union Meets At Hoop Spur Church, Just North Of Elaine, Arkansas; First Shots Of The Elaine Race Massacre Ring Out.
The sounds of children, infants, and chatter
Of chatter encase and shrink the interior. A
Union, a progressive something or other. No
White men to stiffen or direct; we’re on our
Own. A baby boy cries out for the known
At hand; air thick with the first and yet to be,
Threats from ancient times and the here and the
Later for which we thirst, risk all and nothing,
Nothing more than one, for we breathe as one.
A high-pitched missile, a bevy, an avalanche
Above us like voices, angry whistles gone mad
With boards, tawny to char-black, ripped and
Sliced apart. The lanterns evaporate into mass,
Bullets invade, bodies search for escape, moving
Across the floor and out the windows and doors
Into the moonlight, into the cotton rows behind
The Hoop Spur Church, into the jealous shroud
Of another world, blessed stormless, merciful.
Crackles of more gunfire: rifles or shotguns
Explode along the slough; and blood and death
Are mentioned near the car that stands unmoved
As a silhouette against a sanctuary of silence that
Now repeats itself again and again with escapes
Finished, all headed alone into secret retreat,
Unaware of rising hordes to greet the morning
Tides, to impale with forms given quick birth by
The long and dank stare of blood in their eyes.
Early Morning, Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
Lonnie and Other White Men From McGehee Board A Missouri Pacific Railroad Train Bound For Elaine And The Killing Fields To Quell “The Black Insurrection.”
We have our rifles, pistols, and bullets,
But do we have enough anger? That’s
What I’ll ask myself. We didn’t start
This war nor did we choose it, black
Demons all. We can’t take our eyes off
Of the lot, trying to break loose. Why
Can’t they learn this world? God meant
It to be our way, or it just couldn’t be:
Blacks, merely a white man’s shadow.
Year after year, the same challenge, no
Less. We hold our guns and threats at
The ready, and our will sharpened like
Fine blades. With time passing, we grip
In place, unalterable, constant, as the land
Reaches back always to the sameness
That is known and to be known from
One generation to the next, not to be
Undone, certainty in unsure seasons.
Children cannot supplant the father, a
Truism that never quite gets its due
Respect, but through a rising storm or
By rope or scalded iron. The dreams
Of the obscure, the visions of unfree
Men – they fade under the first glow
Of sunrise, returning only in the dark
Persuasion of the untrue; but we, in
Form and fate, make such dreams trite.
Morning, Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
The Cotton Fields And Sharecropper Homes Off Of Highway 44, Near Hoop Spur Church, Become The First Major Killing Field Of The Massacre.
Traveling south on foot leading cars to follow –
Beyond daybreak, still morning, dew just dried
Against canebrakes – the posses seek motion,
Any motion, and turn off Highway 44 into
Enpocked roads where the sharecroppers stir
And then burst loose upon the shattering sounds
Of rifle fire descending on racing bodies toward
The slough, thickets, a coppice, and as far as
The woods, if only they can get there in time.
Black bodies are falling like corn stalks under
A machete, as they rise from lairs with arms
Stretched high to give themselves up – peace
Instead of terms and snares; still more are
Cut down with appeals echoing faintly below
Gun blasts stifling final pleas, final calls.
Confining children’s steps caught behind most,
Fathers live or die finding refuge for a family,
As mothers wait too long for sons to return home.
One cannot survey the sounds, but it is sound
That gives an answer today; for it signals
The place and the who and the hunting left
Among the cotton fields, which stand as a calm
And alternate universe to those now bleeding
Or dying or those, who call themselves white
And who continue to scream and pull triggers
In one constant rolling feat. This was the first
Day; no one took the trouble to count or subtract.
Late Morning, Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
Milligan Giles, Barely Conscious, Lies In The Mud, Shot Through The Chin Along Govan Slough By Henry Smiddy Of The Missouri Pacific Railroad – A Bullet Left Lodged In Milligan’s Neck.
At fifteen, what do I know or what
Should I know? I know the wind’s
Slim and the mud’s cool, as I ache
Like I never have before. As I lay
Dying? Will I be shot again and then
Again, motionless? I hear one body
Has been shot 26 times today before
They were through: a will to void
Is hardly the morning lust foreseen.
Crows caw amid distant and close
Shooting with Albert, my brother,
Hunted down, an animal in ebony
Bloom? Bearing five or six bullet
Holes – one through a fated head
Out an ear into the open fields, for
All things want to be free, free to
Rise above these bodies, shocked
And declined, lain to loom null.
The stories to pick up speed once
More bodies are counted near those
Who tell about us, the number here
Who wear the scars of history, blame,
And high lies. A soft speech to make
Up another word for how, where I
Lay among many, waiting for other
That may not happen at all, that may
Be parted by way of yet another plunge.
Early Afternoon, Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
Lonnie And Other White Men Walk The Streets Of Elaine Before Heading North Into The Cotton Rows Of More Killing Fields.
Speculation runs dry as a blanch bone,
For death had come here, to this place,
With no advance notice – just like heavy
Storms out of the west fall from above,
Lead weight to crush us or dumb earth.
The streets catching black bodies bound
To the dust and riddled here and there,
Left to the trinket-takers – token ears
Slashed loose, fingers, toes removed;
Keepsakes for home to make stories
Last, even flash: “I was there in Elaine,”
They’ll bray, “when others shuddered
Like leaves at a coming of black fury
To the front door. I was there,” they’ll
Spew – chilled air in rancid times, none
Won, just preserved. I walk dead among
The street dead in Elaine, while I hear
My name called, “Lonnie?” Lone passage?
The dead do speak: words unheard once
Before if I care to listen. We move north
Without inflection; we simply move to
Overtake land and a black other, hiding
Under the sun, underneath the terror we
Wish to reveal without panic or qualm,
A man gaining control of his claims, his
Careful inclusion, his worth. Here, one
Part of us severed from the rest, deemed.
About 4:00 P.M., Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
Lonnie And Other White Men Stalk Through The Cotton Rows, The Killing Fields, North Of Elaine.
Fear lingers everywhere, like blown dust,
Unsettled and invasive. Few rise above the
Crops’ horizon: no blacks at all, hiding in
Their lairs, watchful, silent, holding a stir
Just beneath and about us; hearts laden,
They squirm in cane and wood thickets
With a murmur from a child’s voice just
Hushed again. Are they waiting for us now,
As we must be waiting in careful haste?
A black corpse, among another, drapes dirt
Aside, and here and there, finished forms
Of unreal likelihood; one, two lying quaint,
Natural across, between corpulent plants, act
Of sleeping, of nearly a perfect or simplified
Shape. Far up the road, automobiles encircle
A home; vast movements there counter
The stillness here, embracing that tincture
Of effect, which hovers just above threat.
One of us calls to another that the blacks
Are massing somewhere near, explaining
The unstrung motion further north along
Highway 44; a surge out of the rivercane
Across the road, over the tracks, and below
The sight of an eye, a surge from the east,
A black surge rising nearby the shrouded
Slough will outnumber the faces we gather
Together – now is the time and nature.
Evening, Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
T. K. Jones, Security Chief In Eastern Arkansas For The Missouri Pacific Railroad, Boards A Train For The Short Trip From Elaine To Helena And Passes The Site Of The Hoop Spur Church, Now Burned To The Ground.
Should torches bring purity? No less,
Lies can be as pure as any truth that
Is; so much for purity in any form,
I’d say, if you think there’s reason
To divide truth from lies; more often,
What’s the purpose? For all seems
The same – at least here, where we
Inhabit hell and make the worst of it
On our long way to someplace else.
They came to alter the story by ashes,
To flame out the sentences and start
Anew, to have other nouns and verbs,
Many transformed adverbs and periods.
Arsonists don’t work well or very long
With commas and other pauses; four
Words to a sentence are much better,
If not best; no paragraphs at all, which
Get in the way of action and finality.
Who will remember what stood in
Place of the burned out message?
A few, if they’re still alive or haven’t
Gone on the road to find something
Of peace and otherness. We see them
Escaping through pockets of freedom
And deception, of tenacity and want;
We’ll miss them, taking their power
And eloquence to God knows where.
Before Midnight, Wednesday, October 1, 1919:
Sharecropper Frank Moore, His Mother, Wife, And Children Hide In Rivercane A Short Distance East Of The Killing Fields.
Daybreak will come with another round
Of vengeance, another onslaught, only worse,
With more rifles, more posses, fat meanness
And sins. The cane, thick as it is, cannot
Keep us; children will rustle, and white
Demons will tag us, for we have no place
Nor sanctum but for hell or heaven. My wife
Mary sobs every few minutes and tells us
We’re bound for Jesus and for glory-time.
Dying can’t be too far away for any sort,
Here and silent, or even by longer walks.
Be with us, Lord; give us space and closer
Homes. I don’t worry about gray nights –
The crickets, a safe breeze, and soft moon
Flushes comfort this panic, square and sharp
Angled, heating up while we wait for more
Morning to pile up its open traps or careless
Ways, which shall gather us and drive us on.
Let me sleep until it is then time to pass.
Let me sleep until I whisper long the last
Loving word to the last child that will go
Missing in Govan’s Slough, folded over
By mud and the haphazard rummage of
A year’s harvest. Let them murmur back
Of glee and splendor, a celebration of one
Breathful memory – nothing false, vile;
Let them be a child at the merciless end.
Morning, Thursday, October 2, 1919:
Frank Moore And His Family With Others, At The Edge Of The Canebrakes, Begin To Stir And Observe Federal Soldiers Advancing North Up Highway 44 From Elaine.
The faint smell of gunpowder mixed
With the odor of first mornings, crisp
And profound, yet to be fouled, cane
Still wet, potent; shots heard gone west
Corrupt signs that a new day has come,
Birds whistling in sunbeams, blue jays,
Crows already owning the tumid wind.
Could we keep the morning stopped
And the land reconciled amid balance?
Frank Moore takes a step or two into
Dewed grass, high along the road, for
A better look, cautiously: the story of
Yet another day of violence, yet to be
Told and yet it will be – a sermon halved
Between more hope and incursion, as
Weapons and words compete around
A prayer – praying that time remains
For a safe sundown to forage the day.
It wouldn’t be the same for others,
We later learn, with soldiers groomed
At the most tailored machine guns,
Aimed at coppices where neighbors
Lay breathless, pushing minutes or
Discovery to go by; instead, rapid
Fire took faith’s place, searing ice
Cold lead heated to death’s door, run
Straight, whether one twitched or not.
Children can save a few lost or down,
When soldiers spot us first among highest
Weeds; we, not yet standing atop a road,
Children in my hands by my wife,
Humming alone; my mother at a loss;
To shoot down a child grinds an oath
The soldiers wore, those we saw all
Uniformed and creased across the sky;
They wait on themselves, together, us.
About 9:30 A.M., Thursday, October 2, 1919:
Prominent Helena Black Dentist D.A.E. Johnston And His Three Brothers, Returning From A Hunting Trip, Are Immediately Arrested In Elaine And Are Shot And Killed Shortly Thereafter; One Of The Johnstons Reputedly Killed A White Man, Orley Lilly, In The Gunfight.
Stories happen even slowly for reasons
That have to do with words; but it was
Just a moment, and we were all slayed
And outside the car on the road with
Chains still holding us brothers as one.
Orley too shot through and through – by
One of us to start to settle the score? Who
Can ever know? We’re always behind in
The count, feeding tomorrow’s tale.
Bad surprises always open the bad
Places – I learned that about the time
I could pee standing up, and it’s been
That way; intent on us to show, they’d
Rehearsed a descent, the steps, the toll,
Warnings or sign, in sequence: no
Knock left out of order; we knew content
Was the least of it – we were only going
Through a final version of an allegory.
Hiding in our haste to survive while
Hiding as though we don’t even exist
For us to exist invisibly in shadows of
The whites’ circle roundabout us, and
We roundabout them, but always in
The shadows they cast with little or
No purpose, yet to watch us follow in
Step, always in step, inside or aside,
Behind – never in the rites of genesis.