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"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 governors 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.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Jeremy! This is a great example of why we need poets. I am truly puzzled about why the poet laureate was cut from the inaugural ceremony, if no one saw the poem beforehand. I wondered if perhaps the previous inaugural poem might hold a clue. I looked it up online, the previous poem was "The Weight It Takes," which seems to be quite complimentary and noble toward the governor -- I so no reason for suspicion there.

    At any rate, this is an important poem for those of us of Southern heritage (and all of us U.S. citizens -- we tend to forget that there were slaves even in New York state). Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Charles,

      It's great to hear from you, and I’m sorry for the delay in replying! As far as why the poet laureate was cut from the ceremony, there is no good explanation. I do not like to be cynical, but in this case I don't see how it could not be directly linked to her reference in the poem to the Confederate flag that still flies prominently outside the S.C. State House.

      The timeline of events, as I understand it, was that she did submit the poem to the Governor's office, after which she was informed that they had not read the poem but were cutting it due to time constraints. The current governor's position on the Confederate flag is that the issue is settled (it was removed from the state house dome a few years ago and flies on the grounds of the house now).

      Whatever the reasons, the burning issue remains the Confederate flag, which is offensive to so many South Carolinians. Sure, it's history, which is why it should be dispalyed on a museum, but never in such a prominent, official place as the State House building or grounds, as if we still in any way stood for what it represents. (Unfortunately, some people do.)

      Oh well.

      Delete

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