Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Harper's Ferry and the Looming History

My August travels have taken me through Harper's Ferry several times.  I haven't stopped at the national park that is there, but I have driven over the bridges that cross the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, and I've reflected on the beauty that led Thomas Jefferson to declare the spot one of the most beautiful on earth.

I've also been thinking about John Brown, that fiery abolitionist who led a raid on Harper's Ferry, an act for which he died.  I've been thinking about the ways that our culture seems to come back to John Brown again and again and the different ways we frame him, from hero/martyr to wacko to deeply disturbed but honorable.

This past Sunday, I thought about our current time, as I watched a truck with kayaks driving by on the other side of the road.  The truck had several Confederate flags flying on poles off the truck, and one of the flags had wording which I couldn't see clearly:  resist or revolt or some other word?  I thought of all the ways that I could interpret this truck with kayaks and flags.  Maybe I was seeing a white supremacist drive by.  Maybe it was someone who just wanted to yank our collective chain.  Maybe it was someone who needed to transport kayaks and could only use his brother-in-law's truck that had flags permanently attached.

Do people today really want civil war, the 1860's kind of civil war?  And if so, do they have some ideology worth dying for, the way that John Brown believed he did?  Did ordinary people in the 1850's have a sense of what was about to come blazing at them?  Do we?

I feel we live in scary times, but to be honest, most years I feel that way, and in years when I don't, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I grew up reading and loving apocalyptic narratives, so it's not unusual that impending apocalypse colors/tinges my outlook.  During the early months of the pandemic, as an apocalyptic scenario fell on our heads, I was amused at how reluctant I was to believe that the apocalypse I had long expected had finally arrived.

I don't think we are headed towards a full blown civil war, but I do think we're going to be in a tumultuous time for the next decade or two.  But part of me wants to do more research on the 1850's; I suspect that most people in the 1850's would have told you the same.  They'd have seen the John Brown types in the same light as I did the driver of the truck with the kayaks and the Confederate flags, if indeed they registered the John Brown types at all.

I keep thinking that there should be a poem in all of this.  I have written a poem about Harper's Ferry before, but it was over 15 years ago, long before the rise of today's dysfunctional politics.  Let me post that poem here, and continue thinking about Harper's Ferry as metaphor.  This poem first appeared in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and it's also part of my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents.

Hiking Harper’s Ferry

The family finally splits asunder
at Harper’s Ferry. Brother pitted against brother,
and the mother finally secedes from this union,
at least for the afternoon. The father watches
her hike away, shakes his head
over his boys slugging each other on this slope.
He, too, turns his back. Maybe no one will realize
he brought these murderous children into the world.

The father ducks into the John Brown museum.
None of his family members will think to seek
him here. He sits in the dim light watching
the films loop again and again. He wonders
how it would be to have that wild-eyed
conviction in a cause. He sits in the mock
courtroom wondering when it will be safe to come out.

The mother stands at the crossroads of the Appalachian
Trail. She thinks of her younger self who backpacked
up and down the spines of continents
and wonders why she never tackled this one.
She thinks of doing it now, turns north,
then south. To hike to Georgia or Maine?
She ponders her young girl self, so different
from the woman she has become.
Paralyzed by her past, she can do nothing.
She sits on a rock and stares at the junction
of three rivers, this spot that Thomas Jefferson
declared the most beautiful in the New World.

The parents return to a field of calm.
Their boys have recruited other disaffected
children. They’ve created a game with inscrutable
rules. The parents discover that the boys have devoured
the best parts of the picnic. As the sun skips
west, they munch carrot sticks and apples as they watch
the children play, making up rules as they go along.

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