Poem of the Week | June 30, 2014

This week we offer a new poem by Hali Fuailelagi Sofala. Sofala is a Samoan American poet and teacher originally from Eatonton, Georgia. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is currently a PhD student in English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. In addition to teaching and writing, she also serves as an Associate with the African Poetry Book Fund and is the former Book Prize Coordinator for Prairie Schooner. Sofala’s work appears most recently in CALYX Journal, Juked, Arcadia Literary Journal, New Madrid, and Moon City Review. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with her husband and their adorable pup, Tortuga.

Author’s note:

Last October my husband’s grandmother unexpectedly passed away, and we found ourselves making an 18 hour journey from Nebraska to Georgia with little more than 24-hour notice, leaving out at 11am on a Friday and driving through the night. We spent over an hour out running a thunderstorm that pummeled our car with rain and hail, witnessed a girl thrown out of a moving car at a 2am gas station stop, and pulled off the highway in my hometown of Eatonton, GA just as the sun was coming up. For me, the exhaustion of the drive seemed to give way to the warm relief of being home. All the stresses and uncertainties of what was behind us and what was yet to come fell away and I remember looking out the car window as we passed my childhood haunts and my history in that place flooded back to me. I knew at that moment that my wandering was over and that my years of living outside of Georgia had finally found its expiration date. Up until that point I had been a Southerner in self-imposed exile, living in the Midwest, hiding my Southern drawl, and searching for a place to call home through my poetry.

This poem comes out of that experience, that realization. It is my way of grappling with my past in a place that has not always accepted who I am or validated my claim to the land. The South is such a divisive place, both below the Mason Dixon Line and beyond it, but when I focused on the small patch of Georgia clay where I grew up, where my Dad taught me drive, where my childhood best friend is buried, where I first learned my love of literature, and where my family still lives to this day, I understood that I had finally found home and that I was finally ready to claim it as my own.


Color Purple Kids of Putnam County


A whole generation of dirt road country kids
stood on the same stage where Alice Walker spoke


as valedictorian twenty years earlier and sang
‘High Hopes’ in squeaky 5th grade voices.


We swayed in purple and white tie dyed t-shirts;
our kicks dingy compared to the crisp white rings.


We sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ to close the show
and peered into the crowd and tipped our


top hats, honoring a woman who didn’t come.
For twelve whole years we’d be thought of as


Color Purple Kids; the cost of our field trips
and school fees eased by our benefactor.


Never mind none of us could pick a portrait
of Walker out of a lineup then – never mind


that most of us couldn’t do it now. Maybe
we were the last debt she owed to the soil


of her birth. Give ‘em a little culture
and maybe they’ll escape those county lines.


I remember that day because I hoped then
that I’d be the next Whitney Houston.


I sang those songs not to Walker but to the rafters;
my voice trembling and cracking on the high notes—


I stretched my alto-tenor until it broke into a high
squeal and a sudden silence. Envious, I watched


the other girls sing an easy soprano; their voices
slipping softly from their pale, flute thin bodies.


How should I tell Walker that most of us still slid
into the familiar slots of our parents—taking over


the everyday work once they grew too old?
How do I say most of the girls grew bulbous bellies


and had babies before graduation or that the boys
still found it too cool to smoke reefer behind the rafters


during football games? How do I say that I left
but dream still of waking up in my childhood home,


dream of raising a generation in the shadow
of those same lynching trees? When I visit now


the sunrise looks much as it did on early morning
bus rides I took as a child. The dew glistens on the grass


and the mist clings white to the pines and the groves
of pecan trees. When I was 10 years old, I sang a song


about crossing a rainbow and leaving this place behind.
At 30, I return after sixteen hours of highway,


the sun is just dawning over Keys’ Dairy in the distance.
I stop the car at the mouth of a dirt path veering


from the main road, get out, and lean my sore body against
a fence post made from old railway ties. The soil


of my childhood beneath my feet, the smell of lantana
in the air. Just there is where my Daddy taught me to drive


stick after an all-night shift at the paper mill, and yonder
is the churchyard where my childhood best friend is buried.


When I get back in my car, the red clay will coat my boots
and mark my floor mats. What could be home but this?