Memphis Street Railway Co. v. Stratton: 1915 



The poem takes a historic Tennessee case and speculates as to the later life of the defendants' agent whose belligerent conduct produced the lawsuit which gives the poem its title. Something else was in the railway company ditch when the night watchman spent hours staring into it - and in the history of what follows hangs a strange tale.
 

Nelson took a night job as a watchman
assigned to keep an eye on the ditch
the company left in the middle of Poplar
down by Third Street
when the linemen went home.
 
There is only so long you can stare into a hole
in a darkening street before the mind wanders
to someplace abysmal, hears whispers of
Russians choking on German death
the color and taste of the Divine Sarah’s
 
gangrenous leg, every unattended woman
Typhoid Mary undercover, the apocalyptic portent
of six months of relentless locusts in the Holy Land
a buzzing swarm in his ears, something like
a knot of snakes down in the dark—
 
No job for a man,
to guard what no one wants,
when it can’t run off,
get lost, get stolen—
 
hardly a fault to retreat to the shadow
of the church, contemplate warm things:
payday, suppertime, slow burn of corn whiskey,
a corner out of the wind to smoke in
 
until the world all goes to hell:
in a pit whispering filth in your ear
or until some bastard destroys your reverie:
a cannonfire bang, a lot of yelling.
 
Running around the corner Nelson saw
the young men in their shirtsleeves
gathered around his hole, half-full
of slightly crumpled Pierce-Arrow,
 
caught one of them in the act,
prying up the company’s boards
while his friends smoked, laughed,
called out encouragement.
 
Nelson bellowed, “Dammit,
why the hell did you run your toy
into my ditch, you damn idiot?
 
The man ignored him, kept going,
wrenched another plank loose,
contempt in his every move and glance.
No man should have to put up
with such affronts. 
 
It’s all going to hell
in Pierce-Arrows and shirtsleeves and
soft work, tearing up my walk,
filling up my hole.
 
“You fucker, don’t tear up my walk”
 
Nelson’s pistol butt—a dull meteor—
exploded star-showers inside the intruder’s skull,
sent man and board and blood flying
into the Arrow, screaming into the trench
 
laid out in First Presbyterian’s shadow,
friends and onlookers gathered
 like mourners at graveside,
stink of exhaust mingled with
moonshine, copper, testosterone, dirt,
old mold, something sharp as ozone.
 
The cops socked Nelson in the mouth
beforethey threw him in the drunk tank
to moan all night for whiskey, keening
ey-ah ey-ah, yahsahgah
through swollen lips, bloody teeth.
 
The desk officer knew Meemaws,
had a Mamaw of his own, assumed
the drunk’s swelled jaw was swallowing
his consonants. Some always will
call out for grandmother in their hurt.
 
Nelson showed up at First Pres every Sunday
after his sister bailed him out, got baptized,
quit drinking for real this time. 
 
When the company fired him, even
before the lawsuit—he told his pastor,
 
“Brother, when I reach for the bottle now
I see the devil like a ball of snakes
wrapped up around it.  I smell people’s
livers dying. Now I know
what hell smells like.”
 
He got up in church to thank the Lord
when the legislature impeached
the Memphis attorney general
on a tide of liquor flowing down Beale,
 
ignored the blue-flame looks
from those of his fellow holy elect
who voted dry and drank wet,
 
gloried in their measured contempt
for his excess zeal, repeated to himself
 
rejoice and be exceeding glad
for great is your reward in heaven, for so
they persecuted the prophets
which were before you.
 
When Crump and Howse toppled,
he street-preached a while, then wended
his way out of Memphis, onto
the tent-revival circuit of the Delta,
his witness a small-town star attraction:
 
I said to the devil liquor eyah eyah
yahsahgah, an old Hebrew prayer
the Lord revealed to me,
 
something David strummed on
his old harp, something Paul and Silas
sang out in jail, all the long night
 
I tell you all
pray it with me now
 
and you’ll see the devil when he comes
in the liquor and the women and
the corruption, the Lord
 
will show you your enemy
in the form of snakes
and you’ll dance around
 
every trap that old devil
ever set for your blessed soul
 
let us pray
 
and when they came to him warm and sweet
flushed with tent-sweat, all over blessedness,
pure as virgins whatever they knew,
they were sent from God, not that rotten
 
scaly devil coiled around every clear mason jar,
every amber bottle from Lexington and Lynchburg
out to Nutbush and Bucksnort,
no snake-whispers in their holy mammal moans.
 
That was the summer the men got pregnant too,
eating six meals a day, weird bumps
in their middles, mockeries of their expecting
mamas and wives, so many babies
set to come along around February.
 
The math was avoided, by simple way
of common consent.  Call it a miracle,
ignore the stomachs
stretched out of shape,
writhing forms beneath
the skin more like snakes
 
than the ripples of feet or elbows
passing across the bellies of the women
by Thanksgiving, whole families sitting
pushed back from the table swollen, shamed.
 
By the time someone thought to look
for that rascal of a preacher
who led them all to sin,
 
some tiny town living out hard times
on ‘shine had hung him high,
left him for the birds, the tree-snakes,
the stinging flies.  The babies came
 
all gray, pulled half-dead from their mothers
 but breathing too well not to save,
strange boneless toes be damned. 
Their parents would sin no more,
 
and anyway, said the grandmothers,
they’ll marry each other, see if they don’t.
 
The husbands and the too-young men
waddled slow and bloated
until late March when the equinox
sent them staggering out to the fields,
 
vomiting knots of scaly snakelets
that slithered off,leaving no dust-trails,
only sour mouths, deflated dewlap stomachs,
 
a story mostly untold by the time
the smoke-colored infants learned
to toddle on those strange feet,
 
rearing up in an instant when
the babies began to speak, alien hisses
overlaying their syllables, raising
their brothers and sisters from
hidden holes in the earth.