Mudlark Flash No. 21 (2003)

Stephen Benz   |  Southbound

Stephen Benz has published poems in Tar River Poetry, Clackamas Literary Review, Mangrove, TriQuarterly, and Borderlands, among other journals. He has also published two books of creative nonfiction: GUATEMALAN JOURNEY (University of Texas Press, 1996) and GREEN DREAMS (Lonely Planet, 1998).



Drunk and set free from the army,
the backseat rattling with empties,
he hauled me over the rain-pebbled Ohio
with a shout: Thank you, Jesus!
Back in the South!
On the Kentucky side,
he stopped to piss on the verge
and let me out where three rugged crosses
proselytized travelers.

Face turned to the cold drops,
I crossed pasture for the southbound turnpike
just as the deluge opened up.


from a strip-mined mountain
pooled in the holding plaza
of a truck stop.
Diesel rainbows spiraled
in Aztec patterns,
the enigma code
of long gone mound builders,
their serpentine temples
now mutated into
a curving on-ramp,
access to the bland freeway
guarded by a sign
that prohibited me,
beyond that point.


Huntsville, Birmingham,
Montgomery, Dothan.
The rain coursed
over all of Alabama,
a cold white mist
filling the piney woods.
Outside Troy a chemical smell
ate into the lungs
and the Law told me
to move on, take it
down the road, boy,
my type not the least bit
welcome there.
Nor were geese:
who glided silent
through the shiver drizzle
away from the distant pop
of sport guns.

Feet wet
from roadside weeds
and the splash of passing tires
I walked and walked,
then slept in the shelter
of a billboard—
or the DEVIL will get you—
All night, a cloven hoof
pressed down on my skull.


Blessèd the voice in the dash
that did the talking
while the driver chewed his spearmint cud.
All across the Panhandle I heard
the slow-spoken verses
of the Sermon in the Rain,
every other mile
Sweet Jesus calling down
storms of woe
upon the heads of Pharisees;
and the grim driver
coming for to carry me south
chewed slowly, nodded his enthusiasm
for this radio reading of God’s word.
Clouds dropped low over land and sea,
water streaming across the verge
eroding the gravel and litter roadbed.
The commandment EAT flared through fog
and my driver swung low
down the off ramp
into the lot of broken shell,
a clapboard Last Chance
with a parable for a menu,
foolish virgins hiding lamps in darkness.


Turning south again
we left panhandle
and discovered peninsula,
asphalt following limestone ridge,
a wide and smooth tourist trail
heavily trafficked; a parade
of station wagons, mini-vans, RV’s
routed through drenched but blighted pines,
burnt-orange needles
protesting exhaustion,
the acid fallout of continental
cloud cover.
Then came the wet cattle
of Ocala grazing at
the pillars of billboards
tiered to tout
the sunny Wonderland ahead:
magic kingdoms and merchandise,
mermaids and milkshakes,
palm trees and half-priced tickets.
The parade route passed through
this cheering throng,
a horde of hoardings
in endless fanfare
blazing in between
patches of the blighted pines,
lit up as though on fire
with spotlight glow
and luminescent lettering.

But south of Kissimmee, the white noise
at last gave way to sinkholes
and clusters of cabbage palms,
cattail ringed pools,
herons still as stalks,
a prairie of water pressed flat
by a huge black sky,
medusa-head storm clouds
moving in from the gulf:
a land abandoned by man
since the Seminoles vanished
into the sawgrass and sedge.
I crouched in the bed
of an old cracker pick-up
huddled under plastic
with two hounds,
rain stinging my hands,
red tail-lights of cars going north
like alligator eyes in the swamp night.
The cracker tapped the cab’s rear glass,
and with bony finger pointed
off road toward the misting bogs.
At first I saw nothing,
then made out the looming trunks,
burnt-out cases of swamp cypress
charred, tortured, twisted up—
three trees in the agonies of crucifixion.


Outside Ft. Pierce,
the first sign of break-up:
the cloud mass fragmenting
into a tropical archipelago,
dark islands in a blue sea,
a school of coelenterate storm clouds
trailing rain stingers over glades.
The clouds burned off
at turnpike’s end,
Miami glistening like a tide-washed shell,
a Cuban coffee city
sickly-sweet, scalding the tongue,
an acrid burning in the nostrils.
Crustacean pink bungalows
and turquoise hotels blinked
beneath the sky,
overwhelmed by light,
the city simmering, shimmering
in waves of visible heat.


Then south by Card Sound,
where land and sea
dispute the boundary between them,
where trees have lost their way
and wandered into water,
where sea creatures clamber
on marl and whole acres have sucked
down into sinkholes, lost
beneath tide and time,
the continent giving out
in spurts, a few spits of land
like the knuckles
of a submerged hand,
each key, each knuckle of coral
a chaos of insects and crabs.
took me island-hopping,
garrulous driver calling out the keys—
Largo, Duck, Conch, Torch, Ramrod—
and waving to each fisherman
who kept watch over the pillars
of bridges that leapt the gaps
between gulf and bay.
In priestly voice,
he sung the praises
of pelicans and herons,
of gulls, terns, and egrets—
praises for all the Catholic aviary
in symbolic attendance
upon saints and martyrs.

Over and above all the sky
was an ecstasy of cobalt.
The non-Euclidean road,
rippling and incandescent,
bypassed the mangrove-entangled eremites
and took me down
to the outermost bone,
the deranged purgatory
of T-shirt shops, jugglers,
clowns, mimes, con men,
sea captains too tight
to negotiate the waves.
The lost highway
bringing me at last to mile zero,
Key West,
the end of the line,
nowhere left to go,
the southernmost place of penance.

Copyright © Mudlark 2003
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