Poetry chapbook, 52 pages, $12 cover price
($10 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)
Release date: 2007
This manuscript was selected for publication after finishing as a finalist in the 2006 MSR Poetry Book Award.
About The Author
Jessica Sampley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in the small town of Arley, in north Alabama. She recently moved back to Alabama after spending several years in Louisiana and North Carolina, where she received her MFA in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University in 2005. She currently teaches English/Language Arts at Carbon Hill High School, where she also coaches basketball and volleyball.
Tuscaloosa to Tupelo is a fine first book of sophisticated lyricism, set in the backroads, farmyards, and swimming holes of Arley, Alabama, and haunted by its family ghosts. Even in her apparently effortless villanelles and sestinas, Sampley remains true to the speech and the heart of the place.
Jessica Sampley knows how to put words together so they become invisible, and rural Alabama rises everywhere. These are poems to, for and about others. The senses are the key. Love is the door. Rich in narrative pleasures, informed by a lyric sensibility and guided by verbal mastery, Sampley’s Tuscaloosa to Tupelo offers voices from the lost past and disappearing present to carry us into the timeless world of now.
The only story I know
is thick wisteria in my momma’s backyard
and honeysuckle blooming beside dirt roads.
Leave, but carry these forty acres where you go.
Staying away shouldn’t be too hard.
The only story I know
creeps barefoot then hides between rows
of corn and Tommy-toes with a hand-me-down knife, tarnished
and blunt. Honeysuckle blooms sweeter beside dirt roads
to ease the stinking pastures of cows.
Fifty hay-bales stacked high in the barn.
The only story I know.
Here, luck falls too late in desperate hands, and eyes grow
weary from searching past backyards
for honeysuckle blooming beside dirt roads.
Mawmaw swore that our ancestors are still here. Their names echo
off these ridges and rivers, so even the dead don’t stray too far.
These are the only stories I know,
sweet as honeysuckle blooms beside dirt roads.
Barefoot, bare-chested, I stood in thick grass
around the edge of our pond while Daddy
strung fresh chicken liver on fishhooks
and cast his line into the middle.
Up the hill, I filled a three-pound
barn bucket with fish feed
so Daddy could lure the fish
from their muddy beds.
He told me the catfish sleep
in the deepest darkest water,
burrowed down in the muck.
“Daddy, I wish I was a catfish,” I said.
I wanted to soak in the mud in water so murky
I couldn’t see the large-mouth bass
pass an inch in front of my eyes.
He baited my hook and let me cast the line out,
the liver flew off mid-flight
and I stood in tangles of fishing line,
thinking of hunkering down there forever,
wanting to be just like him.
My momma would get her babies
and off they’d go to the garden,
feather-legged Miss Cochie,
Miss Dommer with her stripes black and white,
and the blue-egg layer, Miss Banty—
Momma’s pest control.
They left their chicks to follow her,
begging, pecking her feet
till she’d feed them bugs
and worms she found in her harvest
of snap beans and purple-hull peas.
I’d see them through the kitchen window
and take my cue—
slipping out the sliding glass door,
full speed to the coop
on my eight-year-old legs.
No moody brood of hens to fly at me
flogging, squawking, pulling
plugs of flesh from my legs and arms.
Only yellow, brown, black
fuzzies swarming my boots,
over each other to get closer.
I’d scoop each cheeper
up to my bared teeth
and they’d peck,
When I’d hear Momma
and them babies coming back,
I’d hide out and wait,
my fingernails caked with poop.
She’d always find me,
tell me again about the old house place,
her first pet Banty rooster,
then we’d walk back to the pen
to watch the mommas flap their wings,
gathering their chicks for the night.