Brandy McKenzie

Piper Nigrum
text only

Pepper was the first spice.

It was Pliny who pondered it: the flavor,
neither salt nor sweet, but bold
as burned earth, shaping a world of men. A thousand corns
were worth a thousand lives, he noted; bundled, silk-wrapped
and small as a lady's hand, they cradled civilazations
in shrunken globes, maps of charred roads
pressed like time into their dried husks. Even Rome
was bought with this, when the North
hungered for Latin land: four thousand
garents, seven thousand pounds
in silver, and twelve hundreds of gold
and pepper, nomad ransom
for a shadowed empire. A peppercorn
grew Rome, slew Byzantium; it seared its way
to medieval rent. When crushed,
the pepper's dust blew lighter than the wind.

Filling holds with chosen fears,
pepper discovered the world.

These were the secrets of finding the seed:
"On the south side of the Caucasus Mountains,
where the sun rolls in perpetual cycles
of gold, grows a forest of pepper trees,
snakes encircling the perimeter with sparkling poison,
massive birds of furious blue roosting tentatively
among the branches, and a people
who have built homes nearby.
When the pale berries ripen, the people come,
shake free the filigree nests, enraging the birds
who then fire the forest with their hot breath. The snakes flee,
leaving a ruby trail of venomous shadow,
and the smoke and flames blacken the fruits,
their centuries of growth stopped in an instant,
sharpening their tastes. Take care
that you trod on no feather or trail
as you begin your harvest, lest you take root
and become the young fruit for the next fire."

Of course, these were lies. The forests
of the Indian coast were yet to be burned,
still housing undisturbed the wild things
which dwelt there. The fruits blackened of their own accord,
in the subdued cycle of season; the people
were too occupied to strike down their world. And so few
could pluck the riches of a legend
before the tale subsumed the fruit.

Pepper is the origin of desire.

Now, we learn the nuances
in childhood, flecking rumpled eggs
with darkened fire, adding taste to feasts
in measurements of the quiet burn.
Like kings, we order it ground,
pressed free of growth's round bloom;
the tree-bound leaves left lonely as the sun
faded into the horizon. And still the plant grows. Pale as stealth,
the powder creeps into its own,
usurping the forged tine, its language
flat as maps and crumbling
into wind, the soldier's reward now tossed
like dust into the rest. Pepper
tastes our tongues like sex,
leaving bitterness and burning empty.
Rendering: Mammoth Caves National Park, KY

	    Could I revive within me
	    Her symphony and song,
	    To such a deep delight 'twould win me
	That with music loud and long,
	I would build that dome in the air
				-- Coleridge

Like all fathers, you believed
yourself in command. That small house
in Flatwoods still stands slanted
for my mother now, atop the hill,
above all flood and other subjugation; in silence it rises
over the broken threads of those frail laced families
carried to the bottom of our road
beyond the grace of the dogwood
and magnolia, even past the tattered shawl
of redbud in spring

And that sixth spring you took me to the caves,
a five hour drive through back roads
and my body squirming in its impermanent stability.
Then, hauling me on your shoulders,
you pulled me down, not anticipating the lake,
the cold depth of its surprise; down through the glittered stalactites,
brushing my head across those dangled intrusions like prejudice
or first thought; down the thousand steps
until there was no light, and sense of you
became confused, growing to the stone.
The explosive rise of cold air folded up from below
and stole me from your arms in a moment,
through those rocy organ towers,
high into their broken-tongued voices
muffled by the lake's sound as it sank,
drained, to the river's home

In those caves I learned the shadows of our home,
the road winding round its throat
like a noose; your weighted steps
frozen in descent and the power
of element bending
those impotent walls

And when again a creature of sun, the wall
of your hand encircling mine,
I bought a book of images, this cold place
fractured into singled glories, cloisters
silenced into postcards by someone's eye,
or another. I flipped and hid
the caves so slowly you could not touch them:
in notebooks, under a pillow, in poems to be read
and written with time. Using such paper bricks, I built a road,
through redbud blooms and empty homes,
built a cave beneath a sunny lake
without you,        and flew those years
from our shoulders, our burdens felt,
melting, running through the quick air
and lightening into spume, dazzling,
melting into milk for our waiting tongues