The Story behind the Poem

By Adam Vines

In this article, Adam Vines shares a poem from his latest book, Lures, and discusses the experiences and emotions that led to its creation.

Photo by Vincent Foret

“Coursing the Joints” is a poem I tried to write for more than two decades. In March of 2018, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend two weeks at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee. The colony butts up to land owned by Walker Percy’s family, overlooking Lost Cove, where Percy wrote during handfuls of summers. This was the first time in my life when I had no other responsibilities but to write. I know Sewanee well. I have had the good fortune to be on staff or to be a visiting editor at the Writers’ Conference since 2008. I know most of the caves, hiking trails, and swimming holes on that mountain. It is the perfect environment for me since I am most productive—I think of most of my seeds for poems—when I am rummaging around in the natural world.

On my second day at Rivendell, after an anxious day of writing awful-ass lines, I decided to get up early and hike Buggytop, an isolated trail through old-growth hardwoods that ends at a deep cave with a stream running through it. When I reached the cave, I turned on my headlamp and started winding through. At one point, I had to squeeze through a narrow stretch. Feeling the smooth, cold limestone under my fingers transported me to my family’s land on the Warrior River in Beat 10 of Walker County, Alabama, which my family settled in the 1830s. It is coal-mining land, infamous for moonshiners and gunrunners. These limestone caves and outcroppings in Lost Cove that fueled Percy’s imagination, and the rock that became the facades for almost all of the houses on the mountain and the buildings at the University of the South, took my mind to the cabin my grandfather built in the 1930s from shale, sandstone, and limestone he hauled from quarries and spoil piles. He scraped the road for the sand he used in his mortar, which has an unusual pink tint from the Alabama clay that commingles with the sand. While I was in my early twenties, after I inherited the land, some disgruntled hunters torched the cabin when I escorted them off the property. 

I left the cave, went back to my writing desk at Rivendell, and dug through dozens of unsuccessful drafts I had written about the torched cabin, trying to find some lines that would open a door into another draft. Nothing stuck. Then I decided to do something I never do. I tore the drafts out of my notebooks and tossed them, deleted my old computer files of failed drafts about the cabin, and relaxed. I thought back to the last time I had been to the property, a couple of months before, and how I had noticed, somehow for the first time, the impressions from my grandfather’s fingers where he had pressed the mortar into the joints between rocks when the trowel wouldn’t suffice. That was my way into the poem. And, for the first time, I forgave those men who burned down the cabin. I forgave them because of the blessing their cruel act uncovered, for the reunion they provided with my grandfather, his fingers the same size as mine. Forgiveness would be my way out of the poem.

That day I wrote the first draft of what became “Coursing the Joints.” The poem took the shape of interwoven Spenserian and blank verse stanzas. If I had come up on those men while they were torching my cabin—they left a six-pack of empty beer cans and boiled peanut shells behind where they watched it burn—something bad would have happened. As a boy in the hyper-masculine, blue-collar culture of Alabama I grew up in, I learned, sadly, to be mulish, to ball my fists and dig in, to never forgive.

Photo by Dave Hoefler

I read “Coursing the Joints” at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina, in late October of 2018. After the panel, a Southern Lit scholar asked if he could use the unpublished poem in an article he ended up writing about me, Natasha Trethewey, and Cormac McCarthy that focused on the undead. And I guess that is what haunts all of us southerners and fuels that mulishness, those balled fists: we never let things truly die. This idea of the undead can be as nefarious as George Wallace proclaiming, “segregation now, segregation forever” in his inaugural address in 1963, obstinately defending states’ rights, which was nothing but hatred, of course, or the cult of the Lost Cause that resurrected the fallen heroes of the Confederacy as secular saints.

We southerners carry corpses like these with us everywhere, even when we find them despicable. But maybe through forgiveness coupled with the undead, those experiences that haunt us, we can be reintroduced to something that gives us greater insight into who we are now. I never would have recognized fully the connection I have to my grandfather, my need to put my hands into the soil, to build things with rock as I once did as a landscaper and continue to do even now, unless those hunters had burned down what I thought was the most important artifact of my patrilineage. That struggle with soil and that need to struggle with it and the recognition that this need is a kind of inheritance, the growth away from violence and a history of violence that some see as endemic to the South, the gifts I can gain through forgiveness of folks who may not deserve forgiving, and an attempt to transfigure loss, anger, and pain instead of floundering in them are, perhaps, my charges when I look down at my fingers, which are as much my grandfather’s and father’s fingers as mine, and scribble my poems like “Coursing the Joints.”    

Coursing the Joints
While setting trots and drops for channel cats
on the river where my family spawned, I sculled
the bank, around the bend and past the camps
where city folks launched boats with colors culled
from candy stores and tourist traps, “The Lulled,”
my gramps would say in his last years when wakes
from outboards nearly swamped his jon and bulled
him to the bank. I pulled into the slough 
where he would mash his shine and take a nip or ten and lose
himself in jars. The cabin that he built
five decades back from rock he’d hauled and sand
he’d scraped from roads, the mortar pink from clay,
was torched. Some hunters I ran off the month before
were running dogs for deer and said, “the land
ain’t yours.” I walked them to the boundary line,
a pistol at their backs. “We’ll get you, pussy boy,”
they said. Some empty Bud cans had been tossed
beside a white oak where we nailed and skinned our cats.
The cabin was now just a shell, a porch
of river rocks, a couple walls of shale,
the chimney still intact. Inside, a scorched
bed frame, a deformed stove and fridge. The rails
that held a whittled pistol grip to our hailed
.410—named “Gar Be Gone”—lay on the hearth
beside the lock and barrel. The rest was veiled
with ash and char, but I could see the mortar lips
the inside walls once concealed, where he had jooged with fingertips
and squished the mud between the upturned rocks
where trowels just couldn’t fit or when he tipped
the shine while mixing mud and laying rock.
I pressed my knuckles into his, my thumb,
my palm, and bent a brick tie back and forth
until it snapped. I ran my hands across the joints,
from course to course, my fingers spreading out
and snaking through his hands: the fossils he
had left behind, the gift the fire gave back to me.

Adam Vines is associate professor of English and director of creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the author of three collections of poetry, including Out of Speech, and coauthor of two collections. His work has appeared in Poetry, the Kenyon Review, and the Southern Review, among other journals.

Available Now

Written almost exclusively in traditional, modified, and nonce forms, the poems in Lures renegotiate grief, trauma, southern masculinities, and fatherhood with unflinching resolve. This new collection by Adam Vines draws much of its subject matter and imagery from fishing, revealing how close observations of species, spawning cycles, predation and feeding patterns, underwater topographies, water clarity, and lure choice reflect larger themes of what it means to be lured through memories of those who have passed and those who remain present. With Lures, Vines proposes that by reconstructing the stories from our past, we gain a greater understanding of our cultural identities and inheritances from those who made an impact on our lives.

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