Photograph by Stacy Reece
Photograph by Stacy Reece

What Lives On

A Tennessee musician wrestles with ghosts—the troubling, the beloved, and the holy.

Killing the Confederacy

It was not enough
For a cannonball to rip through
The Grey guts of my ancestor’s
Corporal clothes 

You can shoot a man
Again and again
He will not be any more
Or less dead

Yet an idea lives on
Like the parasites that hid
Behind each fired upon child’s

Soft breast plate

The Confederacy must be killed
Over and over again
Its symbol is not the plow
But the chain 

And we are chained
To ghosts who will not
Go unavenged
Dead boys 

Who fell on graves
Of those in bonds
Buried on top
Of Natives who belonged 

It is no easier to kill a thing
Than it is to close your ears
To the dead
Who still sing

Cold Cornbread & Quick Grace

I spent so much time
At my grandparents’ house
During daylight hours
Where cousins and aunts and uncles went in and out 

Here with just the three of us
Their home was different
With the lone light
From the TV’s evening news 

We had worked late, me learning
About the flooring stain
And the polyurethane
That would not wash off from the week’s job

I emulated my grandfather
Watched his rough, cut up hands
With dirt and Porter’s paint
Under his nails 

I told Granny
“I’ll just eat the same as Grandpa.”

She removed the cool, pearl-colored milk jug
From the fridge

Took down two green goblets
The adults used for Sunday dinner
Crumbled cold cornbread into them 
Then poured cow’s milk on top

Starving, I made a move with my spoon
Grandpa interrupted
“Bow your head, son.
Say a quick grace.”


Easter Sunday
Woodbury, Tennessee
The year of our Lord Nineteen Eighty-Three
Sunny, swirling pink overcast

Outside service just this one time a year
At the old Church of Christ up on the hill
Coin toss lost, even Dad’s here, raised Baptist,
Married to a daughter of a Campbellite Preacher

Fidgety kids in new pastel dresses and suits
Dragging their feet all the way to town
An Easter basket that morning
Full of chocolate candy and a toy helps the day go down 

Sunday dinner’s congregation
Became my Church as time passed on
When I could not be forced
Into itchy new suits, polaroids or a doctrine’s narrow walls 

Grandpa Bryson and Grandma (originally of the Elkins clan)
Reside over a feast held for a mob of hungry freckled kids
The Irish, Scots, and English
Have all made peace in our blood as we break bread 

Good Friday’s Saints presiding over
Our troubled years struggling as we make passage
But unlike the Rebel Jesus
We sure hope no one writes them down

Ides of March are now past us this Spring
Wild rabbits after a long winter ready to play
Tornadoes buzz as cousins fuss
The preacher sweats, the PA hums

But we are arisen

Oh Lord are we arisen

Author Profile

Stephen Simmons is a singer-songwriter, touring musician, historian, poet, and seventh-generation Tennessean. Originally from Cannon County, he has called Nashville home for the past twenty years. He is currently working on a new album, his doctorate in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, and his first collection of poetry—when not wandering in the woods.

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