the tug of the current
on willow fronds
Past and present. Carolyn Hall tugs us into history, a trip of
at least 150 years. Still found in a few places, the horrible practice
of slavery that is as old as human society was finally outlawed
in the English-speaking part of the world during the 19th Century.
The river of Carolyn’s experience is itself rich in symbolism.
In Colonial times, rivers were central to transportation and commerce.
The poet sees the willow tree in the present, leaves draping pliantly
into the water from characteristically bent branches. It is a languid
scene of late spring on into summer. The last two lines of the poem
(especially with the word “tug”) are expressive and evocative and
would complement many a haiku setting. Discussing the haikai poetics
of Basho, Haruo Shirane writes: “The suggestion here is that
poetry must emerge from the interaction between the immediate experience
based on direct observation, which provided new perspectives and
approaches but which alone was insufficient to create lasting poetry,
and the broader experience embodied in the utamakura, in the associations
of the poetic place, which bore the collective memory.”1
Carolyn has spurred emotion of such power that it could overcome
many haiku. Her skill with language and its delivery has transported
me to the place of her insight and renewed my own personal experiences
as well as my cultural memory.
Carolyn may have visited one of the Caribbean islands once colonized by
European nations, or toured a historic plantation of the Southern United
States. Last fall I spent part of a day at Montpelier, the family home
of James Madison, the fourth President, and author of most of the U.S.
Constitution. He lived in upland Virginia, about a day by horse from
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Around 1720, Madison’s grandfather
Ambrose was the first to saw a tree or plow the land there, or rather it
was his slaves who did the work of the plantation. Some farmed, others
served in the main house or assisted in James Madison’s smithy,
manufacturing nails for hard currency. The wooden cabins of the slave
quarters are long gone. Archaeologists have found their sites and, at
some distance (in what is now horse pasture), the slave cemetery. I saw
it outlined by tape in research grids. I stood there alone, out in the
sun. There were no benches. A few hundred yards away, President Madison
has a stone marker in the “white” cemetery. If any, there was only a
wooden marker for the burial place of a slave. All trace of the
individual is now lost.
The slave times are past, yet the river, the land, and the poet remain.
Oscar Hammerstein (in the Broadway musical “Show Boat”) has a lyric
referring to the Mississippi River [as “He”]: “He don’t plant taters, He
don’t plant cotton, an’ dem dat plants ’em is soon forgotten. But Ol’
Man River, He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.”