Song For Claude Neal

by Judith Roney

Listen: there is a lamb hanging in a tree by the Chattahoochee,
All night it hung there and sang till 3 am.
Those who hear it feel a hurt and think they’re hearing
The spring-song of the mockingbird.
Say: Sit up in your bed, then lay yourself back down if you can.
In October night-wind, the lamb’s head
Sways back and forth, and shines bright-black skin
The way moonlight shines on cotton fields and train tracks miles away.
The lamb’s fingers and toes cry for the body. Some boys
Hacked them off. It was harder work than they imagined.
The lamb cried like a man and struggled hard. But they finished
The job and ran off into the darkness that seems to hide
Everything. Men hang the bleeding body from the tree
On the courthouse lawn. Testicles forced in the mouth.
Dick shoved in the jowl. Children stab at the ankles with whittled sticks.
The fingers call to the body. The body to the toes.
They miss one another and long to walk away. The missing grows large
Between them until it pulls the heart right out of the body, until
The drawn heart flies toward the hard-worked fingers as a bird flies
And gathers twigs for a nest. The ten fingers long for the body,
The legs for the toes. Feathers spread, the heart is pulled
Back to its woods and the familiar perch from which it trills.
The heart sings in the head, softly then louder.
Then long and low until morning light comes up over
The lawn and over the tree, and then the singing stops—
The lamb is called Broken. The lamb is called Sweet.
The lamb is called Our Child. Lamb calls the night’s bush of stars
To soothe the lamb’s wooly hair and tears dark as coffee,
To close its eyes sweet like wild fruit. At night hear the train passing,
Hear the sweet sound of train’s horn pour softly over the body.
Then the lamb is gone. Everything looks strange. Like a storm
Passed through while a country sleeps, wind and stones, rain stripping
Branches of their fruit. Spanish moss sighing. His mother knows someone stole
The lamb and that harm touched him. Spread him open. Lives in him.
Cut pieces off him. Branded his ink-rich skin. All morning and into the afternoon,
She calls and calls. She walks and walks. In her chest a bad feeling
Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides
Of her bare feet. The people come to her. Somebody finds the lamb’s body
Floating above the trees, flies already filling their soft bottles
At the lamb’s torn neck. Then somebody finds the heart
Singing in a another tree, singing for the loss of the lamb. Fingers found. Toes.
The people hurry to take these things away so the mother will not see.
They hurry from the police and men and the boys who did this, hear
Them say it was a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke—
But listen: Here is the point. The white boys thought to have
Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they
Had imagined, this rural brutality, but they finished the job,
Whistling as they wash their large hands in the dark.
What they don’t know is that the lamb’s head is already
Singing behind them in the tree. What they don’t know
Is that the lamb’s head will go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes are down, and that they will learn to listen
To the song, word after patient word. They will live under a black sky,
Wake in the night thinking they hear the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts are beating harder. There
Will come a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is plum-dark sweet.
The heart dies of this sweetness.

Musical composition by Victor David Sandiego

Judith Roney’s work has appeared in numerous publications. Most recently, her chapbook, Waiting for Rain, received an honorable mention from Two Sylvias Press, and Field Guide for a Human was a 2015 finalist in the Gambling the Aisle chapbook contest. Her poetry collection, According to the Gospel of Haunted Women, received the 2015 Pioneer Prize. She confesses to an obsession with the archaic and misunderstood, dead relatives, and collects vintage religious artifacts and creepy dolls. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, where she’s a poetry reader for The Florida Review. Roney is also a teaching artist for The Poetry Barn in West Hurley, New York, and managing editor for Longleaf Review.


According to Carol Anderson, Associate Professor of African-American studies at Emory University, the lynching of Claude Neal was the last "spectacle lynching" in the United States. Although, as she says, spectacle and lynching are words that should not go together, in this case [and many others before it] they did.

I applaud the courage of Judith Roney in taking on this difficult, painful, and too often ignored aspect of the history of the United States. Some will be offended perhaps, but these are things that happened, not once, but over and over again for decades.

Thank you too, Judith for your reading that makes this piece jump off the page. Audio recordings have always been a favorite part of mine here at [(siteNameShort)] because nobody knows better how to orally interpret the work than the author.

To hear Professor Anderson talk about the event and the aftermath in which law enforcement turned a deaf ear to those who called for justice, take a look at her YouTube presentation.
Victor D. Sandiego, Dec 14, 2018