Thursday, January 15, 2015

"One River, One Boat"

The poet laureate of South Carolina, the state I live in, is Marjory Wentworth. She has written and read a poem for every gubernatorial inauguration since she became poet laureate in 2003. Yesterday, January 14, 2015, Governor Nikki Haley had her second inauguration, but this time the governor's office informed Wentworth that she would not be reading a poem this time. She had already written a (fairly political) poem that speaks forcefully to the state's contemporary life and identity. The stated reason for which she was not included was time. Two minutes to read a poem simply would not fit into the governor's inaugural schedule. The reader may be the judge of the sincerity of that reason, but in any case, I wanted to share the poem. It manages both to express local identity and a state's social imaginary and to balance that with the need for constant revision of such imaginaries and for introspection and self-examination in regard to identity. Note especially the first and penultimate stanzas.


One River, One Boat
by Marjory Wentworth

I know there’s something better down the road.
-- Elizabeth Alexander


Because our history is a knot
we try to unravel, while others
try to tighten it, we tire easily
and fray the cords that bind us.


The cord is a slow moving river,
spiraling across the land
in a succession of S’s,
splintering near the sea.


Picture us all, crowded onto a boat
at the last bend in the river:
watch children stepping off the school bus,
parents late for work, grandparents


fishing for favorite memories,
teachers tapping their desks
with red pens, firemen suiting up
to save us, nurses making rounds,


baristas grinding coffee beans,
dockworkers unloading apartment size
containers of computers and toys
from factories across the sea.


Every morning a different veteran
stands at the base of the bridge
holding a cardboard sign
with misspelled words and an empty cup.


In fields at daybreak, rows of migrant
farm workers standing on ladders, break open
iced peach blossoms; their breath rising
and resting above the frozen fields like clouds.


A jonboat drifts down the river.
Inside, a small boy lies on his back;
hand laced behind his head, he watches
stars fade from the sky and dreams.


Consider the prophet John, calling us
from the edge of the wilderness to name
the harm that has been done, to make it
plain, and enter the river and rise.


It is not about asking for forgiveness.
It is not about bowing our heads in shame;
because it all begins and ends here:
while workers unearth trenches


at Gadsden’s Wharf, where 100,000
Africans were imprisoned within brick walls
awaiting auction, death, or worse.
Where the dead were thrown into the water,


and the river clogged with corpses
has kept centuries of silence.
It is time to gather at the water’s edge,
and toss wreaths into this watery grave.


And it is time to praise the judge
who cleared George Stinney’s name,
seventy years after the fact,
we honor him; we pray.


Here, where the Confederate flag still flies
beside the Statehouse, haunted by our past,
conflicted about the future; at the heart
of it, we are at war with ourselves


huddled together on this boat
handed down to us – stuck
at the last bend of a wide river
splintering near the sea.