Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

Jim Clark: Music

Black Dog Shadrick Mayhew

(Jim Clark)
September 11, 2003
Jim Clark

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.