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Three Poems with Audio by Jamison Crabtree

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Digger Wasp 

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.


Historical Documents 

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,

          Zelotes Musgrave
     12/13/1834 – 4/13/1888
(who wrote only one line a day in his diary)

wrote this:
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”, 
writes Musgrave).

There is no white on a prison island.


At a minimum 
prison promises 
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.

(The Confederates 
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:

to forget.


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.

The sign 
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

“Small rations.”
                        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 
to eat 
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 
that almost

continually sweep

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’t)?


(We can go for a picnic.)

Jamison Crabtree is a serious man, seriously. He spends most of his time re-reading the same seven books over and over again. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.