The Bottle Tree

by Allen M. Weber
Desert Moon Review
First Place, January 2008
Judged by Fleda Brown

I was so proud, Mama, to get that robe, to help
fashion a cross with Hale County’s finest men.
They let me have two swigs of shine and load up
Papa’s shotgun.

That boy was kneeling on the hard-swept floor
below a char-drawn likeness of Jesus.
In a rightful fury, his ma’am fought like three
big men; her sorrow bit like a sour bile
into the roof of my mouth.

We dragged him to their bottle tree, and Mama,
those bottles made a sucking sound and poured out
colored moonlight at our feet. We staggered about
grinning like fear

as someone shot the barking dog, cackled when another
tore down the damp unmentionables that fluttered
on a single taut line.

As the rope was drawn around a limb, too near
a hollowed gourd with purple martin eggs,
I raised my hood to throw up supper on my boots,
then helped to paint a home with kerosene
and fire.

Since then my children raised up children, who play
with brown-skinned ones; and those who’d force it otherwise
are mostly hair and bones.

But southernmost branches caught the flames that night;
their splintered wounds still bleed. The heat-shocked
glass still takes my breath, to howl for reckoning. So

the animals keep wary: deer won’t rut, dogs won’t
lift to pee; and until I too go on to Hell,
the martins may never come again.

A child's experience, in the child's voice, of being allowed to join in a lynching--the subject could easily turn cliched, but this poem manages to keep a hard light on the memory--the sour bile, the bottles in the tree. The scene comes vividly alive. The martin's nest, full of eggs, just above the head of the child throwing up witnessing the horror--is a brilliant focus for the poem. It's the martin's nest and the skillful control of rhythm that charms me, here. --Fleda Brown