Michael Blankenship: Poetry: April 2021


Southern Legitimacy Statement: For ten generations now my ancestors have lived in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Great-great-great-great Granddaddy (briefly) lived in Kentucky, until a posse chased him back across the Virginia state line where he (and we) stayed. We eat cornbread, never grits.

The Ballad of Lockhart’s Mule:
An Homage to Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Fugitive Poets

(I heard this story from my father, and the grandson of one of the principle actors confirmed the events depicted below. The scene, both men agree, was in a county of southwestern Virginia that happens to have the second smallest human population in the commonwealth. The Long Bridge in the present account no longer exists but refers to a covered, suspended bridge with wooden planking that spanned the mill race of Pott’s Creek, near the structure that was known as Boyer’s Store, in what might generously be called the town of Paint Bank. Current inhabitants of this area to this day use the expression “as mean as Lockhart’s mule.”)

Lockhart’s mule was meaner than a snake
By the mill race under the mountain.
His ribs showed plain and his legs knobby sticks,
His ears jutted out, and his neigh and his kick
Made old Ben Lockhart curse and spit
By the mill race under the mountain.
That mule would bite you soon as look at you.

Lockhart’s mule was meaner than a snake
By the mill race under the mountain.
He hated his master, old Ben, most of all,
and loved one thing, nothing else at all,
In all God’s green creation.
The thing he loved was to hear the sound
Of all the wheels as they rumbled down
From Peter’s Hill to cross Long Bridge
Over the mill race under the mountain.

Lockhart’s mule would break through his fence
In the dark of night when the hoot owls hunt
By the mill race under the mountain.
He loved the clatter on Long Bridge so,
He would run back and forth, as fast as he could,
And he laughed his mule laugh
As his hooves pounded wood
Over the mill race under the mountain.

(It is not hard to see the land; what it was, it is.
Round-shouldered mountains and twisted pines.
The springs meander down in thin light, oblivious, past
Thick oaks, soft cedar, under mountain laurel thickets.
Stands of chestnut, massive and dead, now are gone.
But the land is there, and as you crest a ridge
Before you the mountains roll away, stretching forever.

Whitetail harems raised flags of alarum, fastidious coons
Dropped crawfish they’d washed, twitched whiskers to hear
When Lockhart’s mule pounded over Long Bridge, in the dark,
Thundering from one end to the other.)

Ollie’s ’36 bus crossed Long Bridge on its way
From Boiling Springs to Covington,
To the needle factory and back again,
Over the mill race under the mountain.
In the dark of the night Ollie made his run
And the wheels would rumble and the engine would gun
As the bus rolled too fast toward Long Bridge
Over the mill race under the mountain.

Lockhart’s mule thundered back and forth
Across the planks, not hearing his fate;
Ollie steered hunched over the dash,
When he saw the mule’s eyes rolling.
Too late to swerve, too late to stop,
The ’36 bus hit the mule, head on.
And Ollie shook, right there in his seat,
To think of the terrible thing he’d done
Over the mill race under the mountain.

Ollie was sure, plumb certain was he,
That the mule was dead as a doornail.
But Lockhart’s mule was meaner than a snake,
Too mean to die of broke head or cracked neck,
And so that mule attacked Ollie’s bus,
And when it was through that bus was a wreck.
The mule bit off every piece of chrome,
Kicked out the tires, demolished the grill.
Ollie’s bus looked like it had ridden through hell
Over the mill race under the mountain.

(Old Lockhart’s mule lived on after that;
Beyond the span of mortal mules he lived,
Past 50 years, out of hate for old Ben, and one other thing:
Hate, too, for the bus, Ollie’s ’36 bus,
Gave Lockhart’s mule strength, will to live on.
And Time grinds slow
And Time flies past
And that old mule was bound to outlast
Both old Ben and Ollie on his route,
And he did, as God is my witness, live
To see both buried and gone.
Hatred gave strength, strength past Time,
To Lockhart’s old mule,
Which might be your hate,
Which might be your strength,
To live past your time.)