Poets for Science
Global Gallery

Sweetgum Country


Billy shows us his arm, burned by the sun

where pesticides sensitized his skin

those years of his childhood, playing

in Delta cotton fields. A charred,

hand-sized lozenge marks the tender crease

inside his elbow. Alex holds up her chart

that shows the sickness and death

in her mother’s family, from cancer

in Cancer Alley. She has made red circles

for “fought,” green crosses for “died,”

she has put stars around her name,

my pretty dark-haired student.

They come to class, my sixteen freshmen,

and no matter what their topics,

they all say, “I never knew this…”


Fords and Chevies that will barely crank

one more time are parked in the reeds

and slick red mud. Early evening sun

pours down on the cypresses and sweetgum,

the Tallahtachie swamp at the edge

of Marshall County. Turtles poke their heads up.

Cottonmouths zipper through black water

or stretch out long and bask on the abandoned

railroad bridge. Men and women of all ages

beguile the hours after work,

the idle hours, with soft talk or silence,

with bamboo poles and battered coolers.

They could use the food.

They fish for buffalo, catfish, bass,

despite the fish advisories, the waters laced with mercury.