William Heath: Poetry: June 2021


Southern Legitimacy Statement: I lived in Kentucky in the 1970s and taught American literature and creative writing at Transylvania University in Lexington, where I frequented the literary scene and gave poetry readings. One of my novels, Devil Dancer, is set in Lexington, another novel, Blacksnake’s Path, has a chapter set in Louisville, as does my history book, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest. My first novel, The Children Bob Moses Led, is about the civil rights movement in Mississippi, where I spent a lot of time doing research, with rest and recreation stops in New Orleans. Before I became a novelist, I was mainly a poet, and Kentucky provided much of my inspiration. Now I have returned to writing poetry, with many recent poems drawing upon the years I lived in the South. The present poem, “Gator,” is based on time spent in the Florida Everglades and other swampy places.


Mist hangs over the river,
a ghostly aura. Cypress trees
squat in the muck, pink knees
protrude from tan waters, Spanish moss
and old man’s beard fringe branches
outstretched as if in lamentation.
Beware of cottonmouths hidden
in the maidenhair along the bank
and alligators basking in the sun
on the muddy shore or sunk in ooze
to their eyeballs. Mouths open to let
hot rays dry their teeth, they seem
dead to the world, yet how quickly
they can slither into the water
and speed to the place where gar
are feeding or a fawn has fallen.
I respect a gator’s alert eye,
its talent to catch the least scent
of blood. At a glance I can spot
their lairs along the shore, but before
diving into a swimming pool
I inspect the bottom, and a glimpse
of a dark retread by the highway
conjures a dire word: “Gator.”