From the recording Black Dog Shadrick Mayhew
A Brilliant Obsession
I never wanted, or expected, to write about the Civil War. After all, it has been the brilliant obsession of the most talented Southern writers for more than a century. What could I possibly add, and how could anything I might write not pale, pitifully, in comparison? But here I am with a dramatic monologue spoken by an impostor Confederate irregular. Hardly the Big Story, but closer to the subject than I ever expected to come. So how did this happen? Two things, I think, conspired to produce this poem. First, my encountering an old photograph years ago in a book of family history and genealogy. It's a stiff, 19th century portrait of one “Black Dog Shadrick Upchurch” ("Upchurch" being my paternal grandmother's maiden name), wearing a long black coat and sporting a scraggly black beard that falls down onto his chest. An unsavory character, with dark Rasputin eyes. And second, stories from my middle Tennessee childhood about Champ Ferguson. Depending on who was telling the story, Ferguson was either a venal, cold-blooded murderer of children, old men and wounded soldiers, or a valorous but wily Confederate guerrilla and martyr. Next to imagery, voice is what I most attend to in poetry, especially the strange everyday music of people's vernacular speech. Black Dog doesn't tell the Big Story; he just tells his story.
Black Dog Shadrick Mayhew
I’m the one they won’t tell about,
barn burner, horse thief, cheat.
In the hills of Corbin County, near
the Kentucky line, in the curve
of Horseshoe Bend, I carried
fifty-pound bags of sugar and corn
to my daddy’s still when I was ten.
I stirred the mash and kept cold
the water that cooled the worm,
and clapped my hands at the first
clear drop that clung from copper,
then fell into the waiting jug.
Underneath the chestnut tree
my daddy snored, drunk on profit.
When I was seventeen I asked
Abigail Simpson to be my wife.
Yes, she said, but hadn’t reckoned
on her Pa’s tight-lipped No, sudden
and final as a shotgun blast. That night
I sloshed kerosene on stable floor hay
of his new barn, struck the match
and held it, eye level, till the flame
licked my fingers, then dropped it.
I lit out for Tompkinsville, and there
lived for five loose and lawless years,
vowing never to ask another man
permission of what I wanted.
And what I wanted I took and people
all along those Cumberland ridges
gave me wide berth, and a name—
Black Dog Shadrick Mayhew.
Then war came, and fire and death
and thievery marched the valleys,
a smoky cloak of pestilence hugging
the ridges I rode. Under cover
of a uniform, gray, with a little box
of a hat, I robbed and killed and burned
my way back to Corbin County.
When they slapped the horse’s rump,
and I felt the stiff hemp bite
into my neck, I danced above the earth
and watched the smoke plait and curl
from the ashes of Jess Simpson’s barn.