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Allen Tate

Allen Tate

The Swimmers

Kentucky water, clear springs: a boy fleeing
To waters under the dry Kentucky sun;
His little friends of Nomen with him, seeing

Long shadows of grapevine wriggle and run
Over the green swirl; mullein under the ear
Soft as Nausicäa’s palm; sullen fun

Brutal as childhood’s thin harmonious tear:
O fountain, bosom source undying-dead
Replenish me the spring of love and fear

And give me back the eye that looked and fled
When a thrush idling in the tulip tree
Unwound the cold dream of the copperhead.

—Along the creek the road was winding; we
Felt the quicksilver sky. I see again
The five companions of that odyssey:

Bill Eaton, Charlie Watson, “Nigger” Layne
The doctor’s son, Harry Dueslér who played
The flute; Tate, with the water on his brain.

Dog-days: the dusty leaves where rain delayed
Hung low on poison-oak and scuppernong,
For we were following the active shade

Of water, that bells and bickers all night long.
“No more’n a mile,” Layne said. All five stood still.
Listening, I heard what seemed at first a song;

Peering, I heard the hooves come down the hill.
The posse passed, twelve horse; the leader’s face
Was worn as limestone on an ancient sill.

Then, as sleepwalkers shift from a hard place
In bed, and rising to keep a formal pledge
Descend a ladder into empty space,

We scuttled down the bank below a ledge
And marched stiff-legged in our common fright
Along a hog-track by the riffle’s edge:

Into a world where sound shaded the sight
Dropped the dull hooves again; the horsemen came
Again, all but the leader. It was night

Momently and I feared: eleven same
Jesus-Christers unmembered and unmade,
Whose Corpse had died again in dirty shame.

The bank then levelling in a speckled glade
We stopped to breathe above the swimming-hole;
I gazed at its reticulated shade

Recoiling in blue fear, and felt it roll
Over my eyes and ears and lift my hair
Like seaweed tossing on a sunk atoll.

I rose again. Borne on the copper air
A distant voice green as a funeral wreath
Against a grave: “That dead nigger there.”

The melancholy sheriff slouched beneath
A giant sycamore; shaking his head
He plucked a sassafras twig and picked his teeth:

“We come too late.” He spoke to the tired dead
Whose ragged shirt soaked up the viscous flow
Of blood in which It lay discomfited.

A butting horse-fly gave one ear a blow
And glanced off, as the sheriff kicked the rope
Loose from the neck and hooked it with his toe

Away from the blood.—I looked back down the slope;
The friends were gone that I had hoped to greet.
A single horseman came at a fast lope

And pulled up at the hanged man’s horny feet;
The sheriff noosed the feet, the other end
The stranger tied to his pommel in a neat

Slip-knot. I saw the Negro’s body bend
And straighten, as a fish-line cast transverse
Yields to the current that it must subtend.

The sheriff’s God-damn was a facile curse
Not for the dead but for the blinding dust
That boxed the cortège in a cloudy hearse

And dragged it towards our town. I knew I must
Not stay till nightfall in that silent road;
Sliding my bare feet into the warm crust

I hopped the stonecrop like a panting toad
Mouth open, following the heaving cloud
That floated to the courthouse square its load

Of limber corpse that took the sun for shroud.
There were three figures in the dying sun
Whose light were company where three was crowd

My breath crackled the dead air like a shotgun
As, sheriff and the stranger disappearing,
The faceless head lay still. I could not run

Or walk, but stood. Alone in the public clearing
This private thing was owned by all the town,
Though never claimed by us within my hearing.