Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 92-93
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The Chinaberry Trees in Niggertown
Editor's note: In the 1920s well-to-do New Yorkers enjoyed "slumming" in Harlem, where they could hear the latest music and be protected by the hue of their skin. Andrew Hudgins uses a quote from a letter Eudora Welty wrote to Katherine Ann Porter in 1941 ("and oh, the chinaberry trees in niggertown!") to create a southern version of slumming in the '40s, showing that things had not changed a lot in two decades. The subtle yet significant distance between the speaker of this persona poem and its author asks at the beginning of the 21st-century whether much has changed since the '40s.
Under the flowering chinaberry
we parked and closed our eyes
to the warm night, cool enough then
for scent to claim our senses.
We gave ourselves to fragrance, eyes shut
to barrel fires, and wicks
flickering in smoky shacks.
What was there to fix
our eyes on--purple flowers hidden
in the leaves and the leaves in darkness?
We didn't have to understand
what we had witnessed. Fragrance
numbed and suspended us among
then-the-past and then-
the-future, and then, which was the now
we levitated in.
I've never been so far transported,
as I was there, under trees
I wouldn't have on my green lawn.
By May the fetid berries
rot in the hot shade underneath
the lowest branches. Crows
riot in the reeking poison,
not harmful to them of course-- [End Page 92]
shrieking and fighting in the dark fruit,
mating and making mess.
Redbud and azalea grace
our lawns. On March nights, thus,
we nose our cars past barbeque
and juke joints. We park outside
tilted shotgun shacks, eyes closed,
and breathe deep, nullified,
releasing ourselves to perfume, knowledge
out of context, abstraction
our talking can't diminish. We live
in the pilfered Indian
gift of the chinaberry--the tree
uprooted from our lawns
but thriving there in niggertown,
lush and left alone.
When a gray battered truck scraped past,
we awakened, blinking. Once,
thrilling us, a pistol shot rang out,
and after, in the silence,
a raw harmonica exploded,
someone almost laughing
through the instrument, the blow and suck
of chugging human breath
magnified to frightening music--
except we weren't afraid.
We laughed, excited at its rage
and listened to it fade.
Next spring we'll drive there once again.
In darkness we'll drift free,
and open ourselves to opening
under the chinaberry.
Andrew Hudgins is the author of five books of poetry and a book of essays. He has received many prizes, including the Hanes Poetry Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 1995, and his collection, The Never-Ending, was finalist for the 1991 National Book Award in Poetry.