The Death & Birth of Jesse James on April 3, 1882

Robert Ford and Jesse James

Poem by GennaRose Nethercott


When the bullet rippled through his forehead
to a picture frame on the opposite wall, 
Jesse James did not die.

His body wilted to the ground
like a plucked & thirsty violet
while his horses scuffed hooves & rattled

teeth against bit — One may think those mares
would be fluent in the air of last breaths,
but when Jesse’s final lungful broke

from him & the horses pulled it as steam
through their muzzles, they tore from their hitching posts.
Black mane & muscle river-ran

across the plain, raising murders 
of crows as they rioted through cornfields 
until they shot straight out of Missouri.

Those crows, shaken from their feast 
by the sprint of death, hung in the sky
for three full days & nights before returning

to earth. Yes, a bullet sounded,
& the outlaw Jesse James spread across the floor
both piercing & soft like morning snow.

But if the highway robber were truly killed, the way 
his body was killed, the way only bodies can be killed, 
we would not have these stories.

While Jesse James survived, Jesse Woodson James did not:
Confederate guerrilla, murderer of Union-supporters, 
crooner of Confederate pride through public letters

& political burglary, cog in the great wheel
of abolitionist massacre. This namesake met death
for his head’s price, & he died there in the dust —

but from Jesse Woodson James rose Jesse James:
bandit, folk-villain, whisper, immortal
in the telling & retelling of his name.

Before the pistol cooled, James shuddered
into thousands of seeds, winged silver maple
that took to wind. Twisted across the land

until they spun downward, driving like screws
into the soil. There, they rooted, sprouted,
stretched skyward into thick-trunked legends.

Soon, Jesse James, once just a thief,
became a forest. What Bob Ford,
that trigger-happy fool, didn’t know

is that the quickest way to make a myth
is to kill a man.


The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical
FINALIST

We are pleased to announce this piece as a finalist for the 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on themes of historical people, places, events, objects, or ideas. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blind and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.


GENNAROSE NETHERCOTT is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other recent projects include A Ghost of Water (an ekphrastic collaboration with printmaker Susan Osgood) and the narrative song collection Modern Ballads. She tours nationally and internationally composing poems-to-order for strangers on a 1952 Hermes Rocket typewriter. GennaRose can be found at www.gennarosenethercott.com.


Originally published on 4/3/16.