The John H. Bennett, Jr., Prize
Dennis Ward Stiles
John Bennett’s old, can’t sleep, no matter
that it’s late. There’s lightning, then the whipcrack
of Carolina thunder and a rush of rain
that remind him he’s come far
from Ohio and New York, from cornrows
in the evening wind, from the ripple
of The Daily News flying off the press
from the hiss of gas that left him sick
and led him down the map to Susan Smythe
whose hands and voice were soft.
Here he’d found history with a whip
and a flag he’d never waved.
His Master Skylark was soaring high
and he had some ease. He’d brought his paints
his old guitar, a map of Indian mounds, a cardinal
he’d stuffed. He carved and cut, built toys
played jokes and games, and loved the Negro laughter.
The local language sang to him, the duck-quack
of the Gullah, the white plantation lilt, strings
of talk that flew and tangled in the air.
He helped DuBose and Josephine and Hervey
hailed Yates Snowden as a friend, mocked
his Yankees roots, and stayed half-Yankee
in the South, grinning as he wrote.
Tonight he squints, his eyes weak with age, not sure
what’s there beyond the wall
of black the lighting’s left.
The Charleston dead are slow to settle.
Some have wrestled death and won a round.
More have kissed the Devil once and lost.
They rise up out of the murk, mold, stormspray
morning smoke and marsh. He’s told their stories.
He winks, and the eternal boy in him winks back.