Let the children
feed themselves. House them
in rot wood and burrowed earth,
in excavation and cavity. Cradle them
in broken bow. Give us sons;
our daughters die too easily.
The honey bee, origami and
delicate, drug by the antenna
into the nest, watches as the room
folds closed then is wrapped
in waiting. Silence
and then a scratching.
We enter the world this way,
in hunger. All
that we can give
our children is that
which we take from them.
Villanelle for the Drunken Forests
The forest leans a little more violently
as the seasons cough past. The trees know
that the root of a problem is difficult to see.
The permafrost melts and freezes, chimney
black spruces jut and buck, upturning snow
and soil; the forest leans. More violently,
you see it happen around you, maybe
your wife takes up drink, your friends all plateau—
the root of the problem? It’s hard to see
what might cause this sort of staggering.
The truth is, we choose our own tragedies. Slouch slow
into the leaning. We claw violently
at the ground as it eases away
beneath us and refuse to acknowledge
that our roots might give. The problem is hard to see
as the angle increases gradually, degree
by degree, and by the time you notice, through
the forest, it could be the world (not me) that’s leaning.
The root of the problem is the most difficult thing to see.
a non-linear history of Belle Isle, Richmond, Virginia
“…brought into the hideous enclosure of Belle Isle in the prime of life and health, to die by slow torture and a dog’s death.”
— W.S. Tolland, Ninth Regiment NYSM
Year by year the clumsy reclamation of the island
grows less and less
subtle. Piles of roofs,
the floors hidden by mortar silt, dirt, the weeds bursting.
Masonry dust rising in gray imitation of the city (the city separated
by one deceptively thin
river). Constellations form
from broken buildings:
in the southern sky: the munitions sheds,
the canon pits, the soldier (which are places,
too). The trestles split mid river, their supports
wade in the rapids (is a bridge that crosses nothing
still a bridge?). This island
is a serpent holder; a staging area
where Union soldiers were once left to live
out the winter eating their shoes
(is a prison without walls still a prison?).
Now. Buildings in ruin, the felled stone
plots a map out of the cold and
ushers the dead leaves through the windows.
Without a door to fill it, an entrance
is but a mouth repeating O! O!
O! as the wind lungs through.
After sixteen days on the island, a prisoner captured
in the battle of Philadelphia, Tennessee,
12/13/1834 – 4/13/1888
(who wrote only one line a day in his diary)
“Belle Island is a lousy place.”
Beautiful island; originally
Broad Rock Island. The plaque
outside the shell of the munitions
shed reads: “Island of Suffering.”
Once a fishery, once
a village, once a nail and iron
plant, a hydroelectric plant,
a prison, a park: a place (like a person)
is defined by how it is used.
On the south bank the water level
gets so low that the bed is bald, lousy with
boulders; I’ve walked across and wondered
how the water line stayed high enough
to form a fence.
When the tide line sinks,
you can read the graffiti on the rocks.
Here is the proof
that a prison can be built of beauty; that we can starve
under the cherry blossoms,
that the open air can form a perimeter.
At its worst, 10,000 men
on a half mile stretch of land
sleeping in Sibley tents (“Shibley”,
There is no white on a prison island.
At a minimum
a degree of warmth, a shelter. But here, no, here
where the current chisels past
the Petersburg granite , here
men have made beds
out of ditches, hollows, they have
warmed themselves with leaves.
Beneath, the bedrock
has receded into sleep.
(Why have I come here?)
(I have come here to picnic!
To eat with silver in the skeleton
of the soldier’s barracks. Let me pour some wine
into the sinkhole of your glass)
And I have come only to visit—
in all things
there’s an urgency to leaving them.
It’s fine and good, friend!
I’ve brought something to keep you warm.
Men are dying on the banks.
Men have died there before.
Dogs strain against their collars for their want and their thirst.
Tonight the homeless are drunk in the heath,
snoring down the snow.
The guards would let the prisoners
With a good enough arm
and the right stone, it almost seems possible
to make a bird of the rock, to arc
the pebble of it
across, to the opposite bank.
But then again, the river is not the air; the wind
has no rapids. They let them swim
because they knew:
there was no risk they’d make it
to the other side.
Standing in the summer water,
up to my neck
three feet from the bank I remember
it didn’t seem like the distance to the shore
was as impossible as it was.
As I dried by the fire, the same night
I crouched in the river, an officer
approached me to tell me I was trespassing
but it didn’t matter,
legally speaking. He told me the interior
wasn’t safe. Since then, I have seen the proof:
the transients sleep like the first prisoners.
Laughter and wailing sneak past the tree line;
carry across the water
until it drowns.
didn’t always bury the dead;
it was enough
to throw a blanket over them.)
From Oregon Hill, I watched
helicopter lights hover
over the river for a solid hour.
A kayaker tipped; swam to shore,
then swam back out
to go back for his equipment
and went under.
Folklore says to dredge
up the drowned you simply wait
seven or eight days. Or hollow
a loaf of bread, bloat it with mercury,
set it to float and it will linger
over the corpse. Another
belief: rifle fire over the water will burst
the gall bladder
and send the body rising upwards.
Science calls for the hooks
to scrape the bottom or,
best and easiest:
Would you like a blanket?
On the suspension bridge old men
drop their lines and wait.
Night-fishers, watching the water
as if staring might bring something up.
When they catch a fish,
the hook in cheek, it has thirty feet
to flap, to wing
its body free,
between the water and the men.
Distance is easier to judge
when the measurement doesn’t need to be
The suspension bridge hangs beneath the
Lee bridge, a section of highway
elevated 80 feet above the island.
at the entrance prohibits
digging. With good reason, as discovered
before the columns were erected:
not all the graves were marked.
From the diary of Zelotes Musgrave:
“I am getting
January 23, 1864
February 7-12, 14-16 1864
“One of the prisoners killed
a small dog, belonging
to one of the Lieutenants
belonging, or in command
of the island prison.
The Lieutenant compelled the prisoner
some of the raw
March 6, 1864
Across the river, even the cemetery
looks down on the island from the hillside.
In winter, in comparison to the movement
and the roar and hush of the river,
the quiet of the place makes it seem warm.
On the tracks a locomotives idles
in the frost (here the crews change;
everyone searching for their way home).
The city has no memory.
I have prayed in a church
which once brokered men.
This city has no memory; no—
not memory, it has
no conscience (it is only
a city). Two great fires in this one.
Plenty of alright ones. A few floods
made a basin of the bottom.
I walked one and saw the cars swimming
out of the parking garages like drunken fish.
A road, a channel; the prison island, the park.
Everything comes down to context.
The most beautiful parts of this city
are the parts that have been reclaimed
too many times to count;
history is edged and it hangs delicately.
“SEEING A GOOD TIME. – The prisoners
on Belle Isle are encamped
on the lower ground
of the island, within convenient distance of the water,
and at all times in the full face of the breezes
along the river. They pass away
time in exercise, such as
wrestling, jumping, and
tumbling about generally, apparently
caring for nothing and nobody, and quite as contented
as they can be
under the circumstances.
They are supplied with excellent tents, and have plenty to eat.
Their condition is certainly more enviable
than that of several thousands
of their comrades
not in the city prisons.”
Richmond Enquirer 7/15/1862
30,000 souls passed through this island;
the city is even lousier with souls.
What can be done with history
after we learn from it (and if
(We can go for a picnic.)