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
I. 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?).
III. 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.”
IV. 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.
V. 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.
VI. 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.
VII. (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.
VIII. Men are dying on the banks.
Men have died there before.
IX. Dogs strain against their collars for their want and their thirst. Tonight the homeless are drunk in the heath, snoring down the snow.
X. The guards would let the prisoners swim.
XI. 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.
XII. 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;
sometimes it was enough to throw a blanket over them.)
XIII. 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.
XIV. 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:
XV. Would you like a blanket?
XVI. 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 tested.
XVII. 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.
XVIII. From the diary of Zelotes Musgrave:
“I am getting very weak.” 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 dog.” March 6, 1864
XIX. 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).
XX. The city has no memory.
I have prayed in a church which once brokered men.
XXI. 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.
XXII. “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
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
XXIII. 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)?
XXIV. (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.