Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: "Modern Abolitionist"

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired on Ft. Sumter, which began the Civil War, still, one of the deadliest wars in U.S. history.  Since I have lived in the U.S. South for most of my life, this event creeps into my poems occasionally.

So, in light of this anniversary, I'll post my poem "Modern Abolitionist," which was first published in the South Carolina Review and was part of my larger chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.  To order my latest chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents, at special pre-publication prices, go here.

Modern Abolitionist

Two hundred years ago, we would have stitched
cloth, hung our quilts on the line to give guidance.
We would have sung songs, whispered directions,
left lamps burning in strategic windows.
Then, as now, we would have helped with the herding north.

Now we hang flags of blue plastic
above water stations in the desert. We patrol
these tanks to make sure they never run dry.
Dryness means quick death for those who make the daily
dashes towards freedom. We position
these water stations in national parks
under telephone poles that stretch high above, a sure sign
even during dehydration induced hallucinations. The flags whip
in the wind, a dry rustle above the rattlesnakes.

I keep extra food and water in the truck. When I see
parched refugees, dusty and sunburned, I offer
these meager rations. I’m not above
giving folks a ride. There’s no Fugitive
Slave Act to make me cower in fear.

Some mornings I find a few of them in the fields
or huddled against the garage, the barn.
Unlike my neighbors, I don’t threaten
them with my gun or call the law.
I’ve learned enough broken
Spanish to invite them to breakfast.
Eggs and toast translate to any language.

I wish I could fully claim my Abolitionist
heritage, instead of just dancing on the edge of lawlessness.
But I am no Harriet Tubman to safely lead
people out of slavery, no John Brown
to plot uprisings and raid munitions bunkers.
Alas, I don’t have the eloquence of Frederick Douglass.
All I can offer is a glass of water, a bite
of food, substandard shelter, and a ride north.

You might say, well, that's all nice and good, but what does it have to do with Biblical interpretation, the ostensible purpose of this Tuesday series?  As we head towards Holy Week, you'll notice that much of the Gospel seems to hearken back to the Old Testament, much like this poem tries to root the events in current life back to the Civil War happenings.  We tend to go back and read the Old Testament as if it is the prophecy that predicts Jesus.

I doubt that the writer of the Psalm that we'll hear on Good Friday had a vision and meant to predict the crucifixion of Jesus.  No, the Gospel writers looked back to the Old Testament and used imagery from the Psalms when they wrote as an attempt to give their testimony some deep roots.

Those of you who take the Bible literally (I emphatically do not) will protest.  I don't read the Bible as history.  I have friends who get into a fit of shaking anger at the idea that the Gospels weren't actually written by Jesus or by people who were close to Jesus.  My friends will protest, "How can those writers be expected to KNOW anything?  They weren't there!!!"

To which I reply, "They weren't writing a literal truth.  They were getting at the spiritual truth of the narrative of Jesus, to shed light on his life that way."  Did they care whether or not Jesus went to this place on that exact date and met the Samaritan woman there on that very date?  Does it matter that the story happened exactly like they said?  No, because that's not what they were doing.  It's a testimony, not a document.  And linking it back to the Psalms that would have been known by heart by many of the audience members is a shorthand way to quickly get to the truth.

Likewise, my poem isn't a historical account of either past or present.  But by linking a current movement (helping illegal immigrants in the desert Southwest) to a past moment in U.S. history (the events around the Fugitive Slave Act) serves as a quick way to make all sorts of statements, just the way the Gospel writers did.

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