J. Camp Brown

Two poems from J. Camp Brown’s Slow of Speech and Tongue
followed by a note on the author

Cartography is Not the Absence of War

Not by dead reckoning, but by chain
and theodolite, for if one
starts with I reckon, then they

is lost. Not by chained dogs,
though the reach of snarls
delineates, around stakes, circles,

but by triangles. By gores. The angle
up against spirit level. By sine,
height. By altitude, hachures.

Not kedged by North Star, but
by magnetic north:—the compass rose
and the winds, four-cornered marginalia

of cloud-cheeked cherubim.
Not flag. Not fenceline. Not even
the map. But cartography.

Not high ground. Not cover. Not supply line.
Not surprise attack. But mountain.
Forest. River. Narrow gap.

Shape Note Singing School

He expected someone like the circuit rider,
hidebound, draggletailed as a trashboard,

not a Singing Master with breasts heaving
when she breathed in and tongued la’s,

wrapped lips around sol’s, bit her lip for fa,
and for fa and fa again. He shamed to watch

and eyed a knot in the old-growth floor
of that county schoolhouse until she stood

in front of him. “Can I hear just you? Open
the Sacred Harp hymnal, and read and sing.”

another child said Hug-eyed Bill
can’t read. He leered into the tangled hymnal—

axes converged, the spotty staff blurred,
Waht wluod yuo gvie in exhcgane ofr yuor suol?

She raised his face—her fragrant fingers—
and grimaced. “Are you retarded?”

No ma’am. “Well, can you read. . . .
. . . .You can read?”

At home that night he lit the lamp,
flame barely above wickholder,

and the flitter of sooty pages held her shapes
in far-fetched dreams unfettered by buttons.

Hunkered there half the night until
his father coughed, his mattress creaked.

The stolen songbook rasped shut, its cover black
as the barrel of Father’s muzzleloader or God-

forbid, his belt. Over the lamp’s glass chimney, Bill rose,
casting his shape to the ceiling, hawked, spat out

his shadow, and answered the hissing dark.
I can sing.

J. Camp Brown is a bluegrass mandolinist hailing from Fort Smith, AR. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Spillway, Copper Nickel, RHINO, Epiphany, and elsewhere. Since receiving his MFA from the University of Arkansas, he has been the George Bennett Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy and an English teacher at Poughkeepsie Day School.

Cartography is Not the Absence of War" first appeared in Crazyhorse; "Shape Note Singing School first appeared in Nimrod.