Route 444
By Maika Pineda

Mile Marked: Susquehanna Flying
Samuel’s Coal Ridge: Centralia
Unmarked
Ecdysis
The Source of the “Y”

explications and photographs included

The Susquehanna River runs for 444 miles, beginning in Cooperstown, New York, and emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. In some Asian languages, the number 4 sounds similar to the word for “death”. This portfolio is about my experiences on and along this valuable body of water, a natural wonder that has survived many deaths.

Mile Marked: Susquehanna Flying

 Caught in the draft, a bird smatters blood on my windshield.
 A bad omen. A single splatter enough to wish it dead.
 
 My road map says I’m travelling to S from N—
 Nowhere. Not anywhere. Not here.
 
 A planked sign announces:
 Scenic Overlook, Sunrise to Sunset
 
 The Kingfishers look a few drunken words from the point of empty,
 Because someone flew high last night and probably fell even higher.
 
 Beyond the river and the trees shading a Sequoia and its lovebirds, a sound breaks—
 di-di-dit dah dah-dah-dah di-Dah-Dah-dit
 
 Stop. This place deserves a second.
 Serpents wearing feathers speak bravery.
 
 If the etched thunderbird feels not the weight of the stone,
 If the egret willingly signs his soul into the water,
 
 Maybe I must wear this tag, marked by a number,
 A mile my wings know, always.

 

Mile Marked: Susquehanna Flying
 As my dad and I were driving to Bucknell from Maryland, a bird hit our windshield, leaving behind a single splatter of blood. I couldn’t help but think to myself: this is not a good sign. It was at that moment that I started to think about signs, signifiers, and how we derive meaning from what we see or experience. A large proportion of the Susquehanna Wildlife consists of birds, and this poem explores the various meanings attached to these highly symbolic animals.


Note how each couplet of the poem contains a sign or marker. At first, the speaker only derives negative meaning from these signifiers: the birds that she sees are dead, drunk, beer bottle mascots, and two teenagers making out in an SUV. But something happens when she hears the pecking sound of a bird, a line that translates from Morse code into the word “stop”. She starts to derive optimistic meaning from the environment, and she accepts that she has been changed or tagged by her experience at the river; the final line alludes to the process of tagging birds with identification numbers to track their activity. When the speaker stops to take a second, she realizes that these animals represent something more transcendent, just as serpents that wear feathers actually represent bravery instead of treachery in Native American tribes.
 In addition to the bird imagery and the onomatopoeia of the Morse code pecking, an important mechanism of this poem is the element of alliteration. In the fourth line, the speaker says that she is travelling from N (nowhere, not anywhere, not here) to S, which turns out to be the Susquehanna, specifically the Scenic Overlook. The poem actually contains a multitude of the letter “S” from beginning to end with the intent to show that in order to see the beauty in life, one must realize that life’s destinations are not intangible and far in the distance. Every day is a destination that can change you in some way, and only you can decide whether this change is for the better or for the worse. 

Samuel’s Coal Ridge: Centralia

I need no harpoon to harness the arcs of the whale’s back,
the undulations of his earthen breathing,
the sleek anthracite carapace encrusted with rusty iron barnacles.
 
We wander through the translucent waters ,
everflowing, clear like the canary’s hymn, radiant
like glazed feathers of copper and amber.
 
Around us, the foliage risen from its ashes,
emerald phoenixes that drink ambrosia,
a huckleberry jam deep beneath the earth’s tender crust.
 
My ancestors sleep here, still
their blackened hands fragrant with a land
warmed by a perpetual fire that burns within.
 
Crackled ground, the blowhole exhales a haze:
I’ll tell you a story ’bout my family, maybe you’ve heard it many times before,
But baby I’ve been workin’ for such a long time, so let me unwind, with you.
 
Together, we map the path towards the Promised Land.

Samuel’s Coal Ridge: Centralia

 After visiting coal country, specifically Centralia, I tried to imagine what life was like before the fire began. The book Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania by Renee Jacobs, documents the history of Centralia using photos and interviews. According to some of the accounts, people resisted leaving the city they loved so much. Anthony Gaughan, a coal miner who eventually died of black lung cancer, said: “Oh my God. It was beautiful back then. The huckleberries, yeah, Christ. We’d go back there; it was all huckleberry and laurel bushes. That’s all destroyed now. They destroyed this town, all right.” People used to live on this slowly crumbling land. People used to love it here. People fought to stay. Now, their memories are the only thing keeping Centralia alive.


The poem I have written is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea of creating a utopian society along the banks of the Susquehanna River. On the surface, the town in my poem seems like a utopia: clear water, new foliage, huckleberry jam, and people resting in peace in a warm ground. However, all of these images point to major problems in the area: the water contains no life because of the metal toxins, the foliage is a reminder of all the wildlife that had been destroyed in the fire, the huckleberries no longer exist above ground, and the people who are buried there are coal miners who suffered from toil and disease only to be placed back into a ground that is slowly being destroyed by the resource that once provided them with life.


The main image of the poem is of the speaker riding a whale through the town. The whale, which symbolizes birth and rebirth, draws from one of our experiences at the ridge overlooking a mountain stripped of its coal. Color imagery plays an important role in the poem; the earthy and metallic colors of amber, copper, emerald, huckleberry, and rust contrast the black coal that once dominated and ultimately destroyed the land. The italicized words are from a song by Rod Elliot’s called “Workin’ in a Coal Mine” which show that the miner is finally able to unwind, like the streams that flow through the town. This poem, which attempts to instill a sense of optimism in the midst of a horrible situation, shows the reader that utopia is more of a state of mind than something that can be realized in reality. Coal mine towns were far from the utopia that Coleridge envisioned, but the people who once lived in Centralia really believed that this place was a form of Paradise.

Unmarked
 
For the old man is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.
 -- Follow the Drinking Gourd, 1928
 
River,
drown this ache,
wash away these names.
 
Water leaves no footprints, no scent to lead the bloodhounds to this wayfarer.
On his back, a son picks at the scabs of his father’s skin, playthings,
dried constellations on this road.
 
Soon father and son will eat the sweetest apples grown in an orchard
where the only chains are veins that bind the trees to the earth.
 
No longer will father and son tread unmarked tracks of silt.
No longer will they hear their master’s call—
unspeakable names more cutting than raw hide.
 
River,
drown this ache,
wash away these names.

Unmarked

The Underground Railroad was a long and treacherous journey to Freedom. With each step, the runaway slaves had to face the uncertainty of the future with determination despite the ominous possibility of death. The trip was also a process of rebirth; it was a chance for these slaves to heal from their wounds and to recreate themselves as human beings rather than commodities. For many, the Susquehanna River was an important source of sanctification.


The epigraph comes from the Sorrow Song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which contains hidden directions to help the slaves along the unmarked paths to the north. However, these African American spirituals were not always sad. In fact, a number of spirituals contain joyful messages of hope. In the same sense, this poem contains a hopeful message. Although the reader will never know whether the father and son will make it to their destination, the poem attempts to evoke a feeling of optimism with the promise of fruit and unchained trees of the prospective land. The son picks at the father’s scabs, an image that represents the erasure of wounds caused by the whip of a cruel slave master. The father, who had once carried heavy loads on his back, now carries his son on his back. More importantly, these two individuals are ridding themselves of the wicked names that had once defined their existence, and the river cleanses them of the hurt that words can cause.

Ecdysis

merciful
river
speak
tears
speak
estuary
rising
rising
to shed
its skin
unravel
bare
raw
membrane
grooveless
sable
like the night
night
conceals
my tears
tears
drain
into graves
graves
speak
exodus

Ecdysis

Ecdysis: The shedding of an outer integument or layer of skin, as by insects, crustaceans, and snakes; molting.

 I found my inspiration for this poem during the excursion to the Underground Railroad sites. The word, which sounds very similar to “exodus”, refers to a process of shedding one’s skin. As I tried to imagine a slave travelling the up the river, I pictured an unraveling of scarred skin which is mirrored by the arrangement of the words on the page. The speaker sheds this outer layer but retains her original identity. Another important image of the poem is the estuary of tears and river water. An estuary is a place where saltwater and freshwater meets, thus creating a very unique ecosystem. Every ecosystem contains cycles of life and death, and the Susquehanna River represents a place where the runaway slaves experienced a metaphorical death. The river becomes a graveyard for these former lives.
 This poem is still very raw and unrefined because it is still in the early stages of drafting. The words and descriptions of the poem were chosen spontaneously according to the emotions I felt at the time I composed it. Unfortunately, this program is only two weeks long, but I will continue to refine and improve this work in progress.

The Source of the “Y”

I forgot to ask
why the fish love elevator music;
why the Green Goddess is so divine;
why the boys love Whistler’s mother;
why the moccasins are made in China;
why the boom rats wear Jesus footwear;
why the ridges resemble shaved retrievers;
why the eagles sport anklets and not toupees;
why the crick and creek debate gets so heated;
why the only reptile in this water is a Gatorade;
why the moaning sheep scares the ghosts away;
why the chauffer caps make such great disguises;
why the caterpillars are expert hide-and-seekers;
why the Graffiti Highway leads to geriatric diapers;
why the forests work overtime and graveyard shifts;
why the peanut butter tastes better on chicken arms;
why the park ranger has memorized suicide statistics;
why the cows hide in the trees when the floods arrive;
why the barbers are all secretly tabloid correspondents;
why the place where nothing happened is a happening place;
why the measuring of time means watching trees undressing;
why the trees have daytime planners to pencil in their schedules;
why the west is north and the north is east, but sometimes north;
why the hermaphroditic bass never know which bathroom to use;
why the turkeys leave a trail for the pirate who conquered Blue Hill;
why the streams follow the rules of antecedents, but not split infinitives;
why the newest TV show is called Mt Carmel: Seventeen Gods and Counting;
why the cemeteries require one to pay tribute with zlotys, korunas, or euros;
why the Last Mohican sleeps near the no-room inn and the maternity ward stable;
why the Susquehanna River spoons with the mountain’s curves and forks like a “Y”;
and why I have forgotten to ask why.

The Source of the “Y”

 During the kayak trip, Alf mentioned the “No Child Left Inside” project, a program that, according to the website, was developed in Connecticut to encourage families and visitors alike to enjoy all the recreational resources and outdoor activities available in Connecticut’s state parks, forests and waterways.” The phrase, which can be translated in several ways, caused me to reflect on the inquisitive nature of children. Both my five-year-old brother Mark and Alf’s son, Nick, constantly ask questions about everything, and most of the time, they ask why things are the way they are. I miss that ruthless curiosity and the desire to question things that I so readily accept in my life. Where is that innocence? Why have I become so indifferent? The film Looking to the River also described the Susquehanna as having a “Y” shape, and thus the pun on “Y” and “why”.
 The free verse list of semi-comical consists of questions about some of the interesting facts that we have learned about the river and the cultural landscape that surrounds it. Certain phrases and descriptions used by the people we have met over these past two weeks out of context would sound absurd out of context. But to a child, these are honest questions. The world has no limits to someone who sees the world without a critical eye.  Although many people outside this writers institute wouldn’t really understand this poem, I’m hoping that it sparks the curiosities of the reader so that they will have the desire to find out more about the Susquehanna River Valley. My intent is to inspire the inner child in people who have lost their curiosity. Indifference can become a very destructive force, and that’s what I love about children—even the smallest entities in this world are worth learning about.


Of course, this poem also serves as a unique way of revisiting our time spent here this summer.

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