Over on Facebook, Jennifer Barber, who published my poem “A Body by the Wayside Strange” in the 16.2 issue of Salamander, asked me to write a paragraph about the poem’s origins. However, since I am only ever concise in poems, this paragraph has turned into several, and I thought I might as well also offer it up as a blog post.
As long-time readers of this blog might recall, I had planned to write a new collection of poems for my dissertation from the PhD program at the University of Cincinnati loosely based on Alabama history (and I now hope to get back to that project now that I’ve finished the PhD). In the course of things, I became obsessed with the murder—really the cold-blooded lynching—of a young black man, Michael Donald, in my hometown of Mobile in 1981, by the local klavern of the United Klans of America, then the most prominent KKK organization in the country. Donald was chosen at random to be murdered and hung from a tree in order to send the message that African Americans shouldn’t be allowed to serve on juries. At the time Josephus Anderson, an African American, was being tried in Mobile for the murder of a white Birmingham police officer, and the Klan worried that black members of the jury would acquit Anderson. In 1981, I was in first grade. I wasn’t aware of the lynching at the time, but have since been horrified to learn that such an act could happen in my lifetime, so close to where I grew up. And when I tote up the degrees of separation between me and the murderers, I find my mother temped briefly for the father of Henry Hays, one of the killers, and supposedly Hays had a high-school crush on my aunt. Too close. Too close.
I read court transcripts and autopsy reports. I returned to Mobile’s downtown from which Michael Donald was abducted to be taken across Mobile Bay where he was murdered and to which his body was returned to be hung from a tree.
Mobile has magnificent trees: Colossal and ancient live oaks scarfed with Spanish moss. Magnolias with fragrant white blooms the size of hands and their smaller, lavender cousins, Japanese magnolias. Dogwoods that my first-grade teacher taught us Christ had been crucified on and whose blooms resembled both his cross and crown of thorns (she also had us pray behind closed doors even after some lawsuit had squarely forbidden prayer in school). And camphor trees, the invasive Asian import that can sprawl as large as a live oak. It was from the branch of a camphor tree that Michael Donald’s body was tied. Almost any time of year, if the angle is right, you can catch the sparkle of Mardi Gras beads deep in the branches of the live oaks that line Government Boulevard and other parade routes. To think of what all these trees have seen in their hundreds of years . . .
I struggled—still struggle—with how to write about the case. I am white, and I don’t just want to be a voyeur who profits off of other people’s misery, and yet, of course, all writers profit from their subject matter. I’m also wary of misrepresenting the voices and stories of my subjects and the documents I’ve studied. For some poems, this anxiousness led me to make found poems of documentary material with clear citations of my sources. But there can be only so many found poems, only so many citations.
To counter such anxieties, friend and writer Molly Gaudry suggested I try writing morning pages (a practice outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Complete Artist’s Way). “A Body by the Wayside Strange” grew out of that. Writing first thing in the morning let me lose control. Gone were my old, stiff measured lines. Gone was any sense that I needed a poem to take on only a small but well-defined part of the larger story I wanted to tell. Instead, my mind wandered from details of the area’s habitat—an iridescent beetle impaled upon a barbed wire fence by a shrike, the creaking canebrakes on Mobile bay where it’s said the last boat of slaves illegally brought from Africa to America hid—to the accounts of Michael Donald’s family who knew something was wrong even before his body was found because he was not the kind of young man to stay out all night.
When I finished a messy draft, I sent it (as I do just about everything write) to my dear and trusted friend, the accomplished Cynthia Arrieu-King (poor Cindy!). Cindy worked magic to shape and tighten the lines and title, which was originally “What Makes a Body by the Wayside Strange Is How You Use It,” a sterile echo of my own anxieties about writing about a tragedy affecting real people, many of whom still live.
The poem is one I have mixed feelings about. I’m still anxious about its subject matter and whether or not I do it justice. Formally, the lines are dreamier and more sprawling than I usually go. In many ways, it still feels like an early morning draft, but perhaps its rawness is fitting.