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The Heron’s Nest

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Volume V, Number 6: June, 2003.
Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved by the respective authors.

Editors’ Choices • Commentary • Haiku Pages:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5 • Index of Poets


Heron’s Nest Award


      slave cemetery
      the tug of the current
      on willow fronds

                                        Carolyn Hall

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.”



Paul MacNeil
June, 2003
1Traces of Dreams, Haruo Shirane, Stanford University Press, 1998, p.193.


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