“One River, One Boat” by Marjory Wentworth
South Carolina Poet Laureate, 2002-2020
I take the role of poet laureate seriously; it is an enormous honor and privilege. During the eleven years I have served as the state poet laureate, I have used the status of the position to accomplish many important objectives, from co-founding a literary organization to both serve the writing community and the greater community, to reading handwritten poems by people who have written their entire lives and never shared their work with anyone. My goals have always been to increase literacy and literary awareness in as many ways as possible. The deeply honored position in South Carolina, resulted in endless requests to speak at library openings, elementary school English classes, colleges, senior centers, light house and bridge openings. I have met so many extraordinary South Carolinians, and these connections have been a deep source of joy.
While the requests are unending, and most people assume it is my duty and my expenses are covered, during the last four years attending anything has meant paying for this out of my own pocket. Despite my efforts on behalf of the state, during the four years Governor Nikky Haley has been in office, I have received no communication from her or her staff on any matters, and they cut my travel stipend. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise to hear that at Governor Haley’s second inauguration there simply was no time for my poem “One River, One Boat”. (Three minutes is not a lot of time my friends.) Not only was my poem not included in the inauguration, but I wasn’t invited to the ceremonies.
Writing and reciting an inaugural poem is the one single requirement of a state poet laureate.
At national poets laureate gatherings we discuss the inherent difficulties of writing poems for governors whose policies conflict with our own and the ironic fact that we often end up with a better poem because of that tension.
Occasion poems are difficult to write: they have to work off the page, and there can’t be a lot of ambiguity. They also must be respectful of the occasion and not polemic. I was thinking about the poem for a long time and on Dec. 4th I posted a request on Facebook asking the question, “What is your dream for SC?” I heard from over fifty people regarding their concerns about improving our public education, embracing diversity and inclusion, and so on. Perhaps these postings came to the attention of someone in the governor’s office? Probably not.
One of the most extraordinary things a poem can do is to hold many disparate things together in a way that creates an entirely new meaning: one that only exists within the particular poem. “One River, One Boat” seems to be that kind of a poem. These disparate things are threads that run through my life but also speak deeply to others, and the response to this poem has been both moving and profound. Congressman James Clyburn, who read the poem into the Congressional Record on the day of Governor Haley’s inauguration, told me that everything he wanted to say about his 76 years on earth is expressed in the poem. An English Professor from Arizona wants to name his unborn child after me... An artist and former Howard University professor wrote that the enslaved dreamed that a poet like me would one day stand up for them and write something that holds up the mirror of truth. These intense responses, and the media attention the poem received when it was cut from Governor Nicky Haley’s inauguration, have to do with forces much bigger than me. The racial unrest that began in Ferguson and spread throughout the country in late 2014, coupled with the horrific killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in early January which united the world in defense of free speech, form the backdrop into which the poem was dropped. It was a perfect storm of circumstances, and the poem resonated with many people who care deeply about social justice issues but don’t necessarily have a voice. Isn’t this the true job of the poet?
One River, One Boat
In memory of Walter Scott and Muhiyyidin d’Baha
I know there’s something better down the road.
Because our history is a knot
we try to unravel, while others
try to tighten it, we tire easily
and fray the cords that bind us.
The cord is a slow-moving river,
spiraling across the land
in a succession of S’s,
splintering near the sea.
Picture us all, crowded onto a boat
at the last bend in the river:
watch children stepping off the school bus,
parents late for work, grandparents
fishing for favorite memories,
teachers tapping their desks
with red pens, firemen suiting up
to save us, nurses making rounds,
baristas grinding coffee beans,
dockworkers unloading apartment size
containers of computers and toys
from factories across the sea.
Every morning a different veteran
stands at the base of the bridge
holding a cardboard sign
with misspelled words and an empty cup.
In fields at daybreak, rows of migrant
farm workers standing on ladders, break open
iced peach blossoms; their breath rising
and resting above the frozen fields like clouds.
A jonboat drifts down the river.
Inside, a small boy lies on his back;
hand laced behind his head, he watches
stars fade from the sky and dreams.
Consider the prophet John, calling us
from the edge of the wilderness to name
the harm that has been done, to make it
plain, and enter the river and rise.
It is not about asking for forgiveness.
It is not about bowing our heads in shame;
because it all begins and ends here:
while workers unearth trenches
at Gadsden’s Wharf, where 100,000
Africans were imprisoned within brick walls
awaiting auction, death, or worse.
Where the dead were thrown into the water,
and the river clogged with corpses
has kept centuries of silence.
It is time to gather at the edge of the sea,
and toss wreaths into this watery grave.
And it is time to praise the judge
who cleared George Stinney’s name,
seventy years after the fact,
we honor him; we pray.
Here, where the Confederate flag
flew beside the Statehouse, haunted
by our past, conflicted about the future;
at the heart of it, we are at war with ourselves
huddled together on this boat
handed down to us – stuck
at the last bend of a wide river
splintering near the sea.