Sunday, October 25, 2015

Susquehanna (poem)

The theme for this year's Poetry in Transit was "River." For those who don't know, Poetry in Transit is a project led by Mischelle Anthony from Wilkes University to have short poems by local poets displayed in the advertising spaces of Luzerne County Transit Authority buses. The project has been going on for a few years, though I only became aware of it two years ago. I submitted an excerpt of an already-written poem last year, and it was chosen as one of the poems for display.

I didn't have a suitable poem to submit this year, so I realized I would have to create one. I mused on it while mowing the lawn - this is actually an excellent time to compose poetry or plot out stories - and tried to think of the images that came to mind when I thought of the Susquehanna river. ("Susquehanna" wasn't a requirement: the theme could just as easily have been used to compose a poem about River Tam, or River Song, or the River Styx.) The most pressing memory was one that was idiosyncratic and personal, and, I realized, would be understood by no one but me. The others were also personal, but wouldn't need the same level of explanation.

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you

I hate poetry that needs explanation to be understood. I have heard some excellent poems that made no sense without prefatory comments - and would future readers have access to these comments? So how could I explain the "Books pressed against the ceiling" line without doing this very thing?

And then it hit me: I could explain it in a poem - which I presented at the Poetry in Transit rollout event.


Agnes came through when I was four and a half
young, but not too young to remember a time before then
it wandered up from the Gulf on a drunkard's walk
came ashore through New York City
and hit Pennsylvania

the rain came down and the winds blew for days
our basement flooded, but that was about it,
and then the storm moved further north and stalled out
dumping its load of rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna

My uncle was getting married the day the flood came
the river carried away his wedding cake
A few days later he drove us to the edge of town, where Main Street in Nanticoke becomes the San Souci parkway, drops down to head for Wilkes-Barre
It dropped down into water. There was no more road after that
And the lights of Wilkes-Barre were dark

My father took us into the flood zone a few weeks later, after the river had receded and the cleanup had begun
the streets were brown, like the grass and the trees, yellow-brown and dusty
we found a glass decanter, probably from Avon, in the shape of an old Volkswagen
it had belonged to somebody, and now it was garbage
we kept it, heedless of the toxins that coated it

We went to his aunt's house
she had stayed there, had planned to ride out the storm,
and had to be rescued by boat from her second floor window
Her front room had held a library, hundreds of books, maybe more
the Susquehanna's waters had floated them out of their shelves, floated them to the plaster ceiling
held them there and kept on rising
when the water receded the books were ruined things, dead, destroyed,
but they had left imprints on the ceiling,
colored stains on the white plaster,
faint images of the covers of hundreds of books, jumbled and arrayed where no books should ever be
ghosts of the books they had once been

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you, Susquehanna

1 comment:

Cheri Sundra said...

Now that I know what the poem is about, it's beautiful! And haunting.....