THE WHITMAN ISSUE
SONG OF THE RIVER
[The Good Gray Poet visits...on the hundredth anniversary of his passing]
O broad Delaware!
How bright you yet flow, as the sun breaches the building tops,
And spills its brilliance into Camden's morning streets and onto
you! Ageless anointer of cities!
You touch, with the blessing of your tides, the lives and labors of multitudes;
Multitudes who have now spread from these shores,
Shores where Swedes and English and Dutch early embarked,
Where Indians once watched and sold their crops, where industrious Quakers
.....settled and cultivated commerce,
Where Irish and Italian peasants, sent sadly off from home, took up trades and
.....took up their tunes again,
Where Poles found a home, and the Germans found a home, where Jews and
.....Greeks and Serbs mingled and made modest fortunes,
Where the freed blacks arrived for menial work and refuge, and have now
.....arrived ont othe main stages of politics and industry and law!
O river, companion and friend!
Since I ceased my evening jaunts along these lanes, taking my deserved rest
.....beneath a great block of granite set in a prominent and shaded spot against
.....a Camden graveyard hill,
How has history unwound around you these hundred years?
Out from their red brick homes, these new Americans poured into workshops
.....and onto ships, spawning enterprise.
They filled the steel in textile mills, refineries and fabricators of chemical potions
.....with the sounds of production.
They could build eight ships at once here, just on the Jersey side, then fill them
.....with fruits of New Jersey fields and factories;
They founded a soup-making empire, and found a way to record sound, musical
.....sound, sending operas around the continents...from little Camden!
Yet in this flood tide of bounty,
Whose flow of wealth spawned a growing county of great homes and shining
In the progress of people who learned and earned and prospered from their place
.....in the American enterprise.
In the sight of great bridges now arching above your waters, carrying swarms of
.....people into webs of roadways wider still,
In the elbow of your mother's grasp a deep sadness lies,
And I weep at the new sorrow of my city!
Camden, which on my watch sailed at the crest of a great wave,
Mighty in manufacture and in governance, the power of her politicians and orators
.....acclaimed, the muscle of her laborers peerless,
Today she is wracked on rocky shoals.
I roam familiar streets, the blocks of Broadway once decked with bright banners of
.....enterprise, now devastated. I stare into empty storefronts charred and windowless,
.....abandoned homes with the ancient beams and crossties exposed,
I meet the eyes of old men begging for pennies, and young men with muffled anger
.....in their mein,
I touch the unblemished face of a dying boy, felled by another's bullet as he raced
.....from a dealer's den.
I bellow, I roar:
Where is the flame that once fired great furnaces--not just of factories--but of hope
.....that burned in men's hearts?
Where is the will to turn this tide around?
I call upon you priests and publicans, women and men of vision, doctors, philosophers
.....and trademen worthy of your call,
I summon you, in the echo of America's once great song: stir the old bones of this city!
I know there is water hidden in these stones; strike the rock!
I see there are skills sleeping in the poor but noble people who wander the streets
.....aimlessly today...shake them!
And you river, awaken again in the hearts of men and women, dreams,
Dreams an earlier generation of citizens conceived as they stood on your banks, dazzled
.....by the rising sun, with its brightness streaming abundantly over the waters.
Kathleen O'Toole has combined a nearly thirty-year professional life in community organizing with teaching and writing. She received her Masters Degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1991, and has taught writing at JHU and at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is grateful for recent sojourns at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which have influenced her poetry. She currently works for Bread for the World, and lives in Takoma Park, MD with her husband John.
To read more by this author:
Kathleen O'Toole: DC Places Issue