Native trumpet creeper climbs the Doric column pine, here on the Gulf-edge of Texas. My father drives me past grass farms, gas stations, ship channels, oil refineries, chemical plants.
In the Walmart, I’m bathed in cool corporate blue-white light. It’s a Western place, built atop graves, a hungry, liminal space. Getting in and out of my father’s car.
We drive underneath the freeway triumphal arches. These curved planetary lines carved into the earth trace indigenous routes.
Paulina was born in Virginia in 1820. Her body wedged between the lines of a tax document. Her stories sung, or sown, or quilted, or woven. She died a free woman in the state of Texas at the edge of a new century.
Ten years ago, I was a daughter discovering agency. Returning and returning Gulfward over the length of a decade.
* * *
In January, Saturn enters my ninth house of long distance travel and distant relatives, a natal placement. When New York collects on the skin like sewage, a rupture opens up a transitory period, and I begin to move.
Gulfward is a liquid idea. Houston is a water sign, Plutonian in nature; The water can birth you, or rip you under the tide.
I enter into humid heat over and over again. I take photographs of the clouds piling up over the Gulf. I’m obsessed with them. Always looking into the sky.
One Gemini season ten years ago in Louisiana, my father and I get lost on a dark backroad, come across a black-eyed mansion, some confederate ghost. At my grandmother’s, I follow her little white terrier out to the yard where we look at the next-door cows idling under Spanish moss. Ten years later, the full moon sentinels as the Greyhound bus moves me through the Louisiana night. Eight hundred dollars cash in a white business envelope, an autoharp in the overhead, destination Houston. Paulina forced to walk along this same estuarial coast to East Texas.
At eighteen, out of a trauma’d childhood into this trauma’d body: raced, gendered, beaten, and shamed, and at first, I believed, without family. In other words, without history.
Paulina, mother of Louisa. Louisa, mother of Mamie. Mamie, mother of Vera. Vera, mother of Mary Lou. Mary Lou, my grandmother.
Did Paulina get a chance to notice the colors of this place, the colors of the bayou: yellow and green, or mustard and moss, or goldenrod and pine. A hawk on a low perch, a cardinal beats its wings in protest. A white cat, still, moving slowly on the riverbank, a ghost. In other words, what populated her inner life?
Yellow is the color of Oshun and, for me, a Taurusian inclination to reach for material beauty when I lose track of my body in the panic. A round moonstone at my throat. Rose quartz on my breast.
Over the phone, a friend says look for agency where you are, as I watch a snake that is draped over a rock, wavering drunkenly in the sun. The minnows spin themselves through quick little currents in the yellow-water creek.
Yellow gowns, and yellow water, and yellow flowers: marigold and calendula and yarrow. Dust that has traveled on the wind from the Sahara.
Paulina, a teenager in chains on a thousand-mile slave trail through Appalachia, Gulfward. I 'members de day we'uns started in three covered wagons, all loaded. 'Twas celebration day for us chillun. We travels from daylight to dark, 'cept to feed and res' de mules at noon. I don' rec'lec' how long we was on de way, but 'twas long time and 'twarn't no celebration towards de las'. (1) De chillun walked mornins and de older folks walked afternoons. (2)
Gulfward is an orientation toward a gulf. In the United States, it is often a southerly motion. It is a gesture toward the sky. Are you underneath towering white clouds? Are they threatening rain? Are you holding your hand up to the sun so you can see? Are you wiping sweat from your brow?
Gulfward is a gesture of displacement. A man moves his family, his plantation and all his slaves from Virginia to East Texas after the Indian Removal Act and the violent occupation of Tejano land. An unsettling settlement, a disruptive installation.
The Gringo locked into the fiction of white superiority, seized complete political power, stripping Indians and Mexicans of their land while their feet were still rooted in it. (3)
I am trying to understand my self within the text of the Gulf—
I have an anxiety-of-relocating, a desire to be in motion. I got ramblin,’ I got ramblin’ on my mind. (4) Robert Johnson’s perpetual wandering just out of reach of the Devil. The Blues a chronology of dispossession. The amethyst I keep under my pillow.
Dreaming about New York every night, not sick, but a homesoftness, the residential grids of my childhood, nostalgic teals, lavenders, blues, and yellows. I was raised by a white woman, by her maternal violence. But also, by the cold, wet concrete corners where I fell off bicycles. By closed doors and empty playgrounds.
* * *
Cloud architecture is an ephemeral archive. Clouds populate the sky with their personalities, jockeying in the blue expanse. Each one an untouchable wilderness, they build without acknowledgement, dissipate without rancor. They blacken with righteous rage.
In a photograph of my young uncle, my brother’s face, my brother’s shoulders. My family’s archive is alive. Our bodies carry the narratives.
An inventory of property belonging to one of the largest landowners in the county in 1850, J. M. Lewis. (5) Seventh on the list, a Black woman, 30 years. The only evidence of Paulina, a tenuous, almost invisible tie to a wealthy white family overburdened with history, some of it mine. The violence of a cotton thread of crinoline cloth, of calico print. I can’t find her without them.
The word “slave” doesn’t appear even once in an article by the county historical society. (6)
His grandfather the General and his war that lasted the summer of 1774, in other words, the slaughter of Shawnee and Mingo. (7) In other words, razing forests and damming rivers to reach West Virginia, the Ohio River, Kentucky. I am born of blood in the soil my grandmothers never asked for. In othered words. A historical nausea.
Here, mushroom caps crop up after rains. The late summer wildflower snow-on-the-mountain, a poisonous bloom. Paulina is from a land without people.
Here, at the home church in January, where a raccoon has torn away a ceiling tile, a glimpse of the hundred-year-old interior, wood slats painted white. Behind the insulation is the structure my grandfathers built, where my grandmothers prayed. I see them fanning themselves in the high July heat.
Here, I take the eucharist, slowly, shyly, bowing my head. In a dream, a Black woman tells me her name in a language I don’t know.
The names of the founding families of Virginia run together, disappear, reappear, repeat, fall away. Weighed down with mythology: Huguenot persecutions, murdered landlords, invented Indian kidnappings, Scottish clans that don’t exist. (8) Their fiction is state infrastructure; towns, rivers, hills, highways bear the names. They’re hidden away on the edge of the Blue Ridge, profiled as under-the-radar retreats for the terminally chic. (9) I sift through the myth for the prophetic dreams of my grandmothers.
If the plants Paulina sowed still grow in the Shenandoah, they will speak of what she carried. Tobacco and cotton but also corn, sweet potato, collards, coriander, carrot. I want to be a student of the land. Without knowing, I cross the paths she walked, over Allegheny mountains, the Ohio river, into the Deep South, along the Gulf Coast, a geneagraphy.
Here at the edge of the Gulf, a wild yellow storm lights in the evening. I bathe in it. It touches everything, leaving no shadow. I breathe in the wet green air.
* * *
Wasps race expectantly over the dried mud and sunburnt grass. On a July Sunday, the morning of a birdsong homegoing, my eyes are drawn to the green and yellow stained glass, to God be the glory. My bones in the mud of the Lewis Creek Reservoir.
I dream of a flood overtaking the streets where I grew up. Waters lap at my window sill. My father a thousand miles away, up to his chest in it, the street become bayou. A hundred and fifty years before, waters baptized Paulina as soon as she was free. I am afraid it will erase me.
I study the maps that trace the coffles driven by whips and guns across the states. I study the loamy soil, the pine needles on the ground. I’m doubled over wild petunias, creek-water lily pads, anything to be close to her. All this tending to my ancestor, and tendering, and tethering, alongside melancolony, a love.
The asteroid Chiron, ruler of wounds and healing. When my natal chart is mapped onto the world, Chiron’s planetary line in my first house runs through the Bight of Benin, asking, who am I?
(1) Betty Farrow from Part 3 of the Texas Narratives volume of Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1941.
(2) Martha Spence Bunton, from Part 1 of the Texas Narratives volume.
(3) From Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa.
(4) Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi to be the best Delta Blues guitarist. He recorded this song in San Antonio in 1936.
(5) From the 1850 Census Slave Schedule, a list of enslaved inhabitants of Montgomery County. It is probably the earliest record of Paulina that can be found on the internet.
(6) The Woodlands Lifestyles and Homes online magazine has an article, undated, about the Lewis family of Montgomery County, Texas. “John M. Lewis, Sr. was born in Virginia in 1802, the son of William and Nancy McClanahan Lewis. His paternal grandfather was General Andrew Lewis, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. In 1831, Lewis married Susan Madison Boyer in Fincastle, Virginia. Soon after, they moved to Franklin County, Alabama where they had four children: sons Eldon, Clint and John, Jr., and daughter Iantha, between 1833 and 1840. Lewis and his family moved to Montgomery County, Republic of Texas in 1842.”
(7) From the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly, Volumes 4-5, 1904.
(8) A fictional diary by Margaret Lynn, General Lewis’s mother, appeared in a magazine called Land We Love in 1869, with invented stories of children “kidnapped by Indians,” and the mysterious clan “Loch Lynn,” though Lynns do exist in Northern Ireland, dating from the Plantation times. (Lynn happens to be my mother’s middle name, which is unrelated, but somehow, notable.)
(9) Vogue put out an article in January 2018 called “Wandering Lewisburg, “The Coolest Small Town in West Virginia,” featuring a boutique hotel called the General Lewis Inn.
Lyric Hunter’s poems and prose works have appeared in Organism For Poetic Research’s PELT Vol. 4, and The Felt. She is the author of two chapbooks, Motherwort (Guillotine, 2017) and Swallower (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pratt Institute. She is a born-and-bred New Yorker, and lives in Houston, TX.