'Susquehanna' by Shara McCallum
Posted: November 14, 2010
(Editor's note: Shara McCallum, director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, recited this poem at President Bravman's inauguration. She authored it for the event.)
"I've known rivers ancient as the world and older
than the flow of human blood in human veins."
Landscapes imprint themselves, marking us
with scent: on these banks, pine and humid soil.
With sights we memorize until they become
unremarkable as breathing.
At dawn, mist peels off the water's skin,
then lifts like fine netting, draping
the hills of this valley. Everywhere I look,
the river is present, a scrim for history.
Like the migratory shad who begin their trek
each spring when dogwoods bloom, like your origins
in the earth a hundred million years ago, or more,
your name is only partly understood:
Hanna, Algonquin for "river" or "stream."
In trying to know you,
I learn of immigrants who entered your story:
Susanna Wright, Joseph Priestley, Aaron Levy, Stephen Smith.
Their lives flare among those of the unrecorded
women and men who landed on your shores.
When they waded through tall grass
and saw asters suspended on ochre stalks,
when they heard a cardinal stutter in the brush,
crows cawing overhead,
did they wonder, as I do now,
Who am I to stand in this place?
I stand on the cliff overlooking the confluence
of the river's branches.
I have come to witness its grandeur.
But not much here wants to deliver.
Not the chain-link fence stopping my fall.
Not the butterfly flitting on weeds.
In every direction, hills rim the horizon,
sloping down to muddy water.
Across the surface, a skiff skitters,
spume in its wake.
At this juncture, the current's slight shift
confirms the river's indifference
to our demarcation of North and West,
to bridges connecting the island and mainland.
Beauty is part fiction here. I conjure it
by not seeing,
the way, as I drive along the river
on Route 15, I blot out
rusting gas pumps,
crumbling farmhouses and barns.
The way I turn from the wreckage
of human industry to study an oak-
upper limbs steer me toward a sky
so blue it tries belief.
In this watershed, time is a pendulum,
swinging backward and forward as the mind directs.
Amish buggies clacking on asphalt collapse
three centuries. Almost.
Steel rails leading from town
signal that other Railroad:
fugitive mother and child racing night,
reversing the river's course
from Columbia into Lewisburg,
where a stable next to the creek and tracks
flickered refuge on their journey north.
Today, a train drags along this site,
trailed by its whistle.
Like that ricocheting sound, memory
wants to invoke the past, asks us to hear
an infant's cries, a mother's hushing reply.
Gives body to our wounds,
as if we could commemorate the dead.
Here is the river: low from drought, then rising suddenly
when rains swell tributaries and streams.
Here is the river: sluice of acid and rotting herring.
Fisherman casting into a creek so clear
he thinks he can read his fate
in a trout's iridescent skin.
Here is the river, free-flowing and unchecked,
dammed and stilled, interrupted
by islands of cormorants,
egrets, and migratory blue herons,
continuing as it has always done-
carving out rock-faced banks, valleys with loamy fields.
Here is the river: once site of logs
hurtling downstream after winter's floes thawed.
And before: where a Susquehannock woman,
squatting in reeds, stood up,
squinted into the sun to decode the future,
assembling on the water.
Contact: Division of Communications
Next story >>