Posts Tagged Europe

THINKING OF AMERICA

‘Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force.’

MAKING AMERICA WHITE AGAIN, Toni Morrison

 

Twenty five years ago – the year of the First

Gulf War, the launching of the World Wide Web,

the repeal of South Africa’s Apartheid Law,

and the ‘End of History’ – one August

Saturday in Godfrey, Illinois –

a town on the Mississippi bluffs –

I watched the wooden New England style

Church of Christ at Monticello cross the road,

on hydraulic jacks, to the Lewis & Clark

Community College campus. The crowd

was affable, and overwhelmingly white.

A marching band played ‘Tie a yellow ribbon’,

and Old Glory was in abundance.

To cheers the steeple bell was rung and rung.

 

The college had been the Monticello

Female Seminary, founded in

1835 by Captain Godfrey –

a retired fisherman from Cape Cod –

for whom the town was named. He believed,

‘When you educate a woman you

educate a family’. He admired

Thomas Jefferson – Founding Father,

president and conflicted slave owner –

so named the finishing school after

his primary Virginia plantation.

 

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark –

U.S. Army officer volunteers –

were commissioned by President Jefferson

to map the West, mind the French, impress the Sioux

and expand the concept of the thirteen states

beyond the confluence of the great rivers.

They set off from the banks of the nearby

Wood River and crossed the Mississippi

to sail up the Missouri to its source

two thousand miles away in the Rockies

across the lush and pristine Great Plains.

 

*

 

In the small town on the limestone bluffs

where bald eagles nest above the river

Adams, Washington, Franklin et al

would have felt at home that August day,

recognising most present as descendants –

collegial,  patriotic, Anglophone,

Protestant and white. Now, across the vast

darkling fields of the republic, they would hear

incessantly Jefferson’s prescient

‘…the knell of the Union…this act

of suicide…of treason against the hopes

of the world…a fire bell in the night…’

clanging, clanging, clanging.

 

 

 

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MONKS’ MOUND, CAHOKIA, ILLINOIS

The river valleys – Missouri, Ohio,
Illinois, Mississippi – are thronged
with prehistoric earthen mounds. Monks’ Mound
was lived on briefly by Trappists, hence
its English soubriquet. The city
of Cahokia – the name means ‘Wild Geese’ –
was six miles square, had more than eighty mounds.
At its thirteenth century zenith,
it was as populous as any city
in the then contemporary Europe.

The Trinculos and Stephanos came:
mockers and con men – drunken, violent,
slaughtering bison, fencing the prairie –
satraps of Washington and the railways,
converting, through alcohol, to the true faith
of dependence and destitution,
those whom they determined were Caliban.

Monk’s Mound is one hundred feet high. Westwards,
beyond the black slums of East St Louis,
over the river, on the waterfront,
is St Louis’s Gateway Arch – six hundred
and thirty stainless steel feet to celebrate
the final subjugation of the land.

 

 

 

 

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ONLY ARTIFICE WILL REMAIN

When a joiner made the oak frame of this

long sash window, when a builder set it

in the wall, when a glazier puttied

in the panes that keep the weathers in their place,

all I would have seen were hedges, fields, ponds

and grazing dairy cattle – before the rise,

the decline and the fall, in a hundred

and sixty years, of so many empires.

 

When I stand on the back doorstep and search

for the stars amid the urban glare and the overcast

and then look down I see me silhouetted

in the gazebo’s windows – like the figure,

in ‘Las Meninas’, whom we see through

an open door, having paused climbing the stairs

to briefly watch paint capture majesty.

 

I think of Xerses, anticipating

victory over all of Greece, the world,

watching his armies cross the Bosporus

into Europe, suddenly weeping,

knowing that none of them would be alive

a hundred years from then – and longing

for the pillars and for the gardens

of Persepolis. A century or more

later, Alexander the Great will scourge

the city’s entire populace. Only

artifice will remain.

 

 

 

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THE SAME SHARED GROUND

Larks and herons rise from the same shared ground –

a salt-marsh sprinkled with scurvy grass

like early snow. A navigable channel

is impossibly distant, far-off as

childhood’s spring tides. Silt obscured endeavour.

Sailors and milkmaids and priests lie low

as the worked-out coal seams. Glaciers made this –

ice miles, thick as centuries, combing valleys,

teasing out hills, a slow explosion

of seas. I imagine, back in Europe’s

reticular forests, a homely,

mackerel sky caught in another’s vision –

ancient weathers, sand settling in a pool,

pebbles jarred momentarily, the shape

and sense of time.

 

Towing the continent,

hulks sailed west. Only fulmars passed. The past

stretches like a landscape from this instant,

encompassing it. The oneness of things,

their disparateness I taste like blood:

the jest at the heart – being here and now

who could so easily have been elsewhere

or no one. Oblivious of ironies,

soarers and coasters cohabit. The ice

was deep as mountains. I am shrouded in

imagining’s ponderous white oceans.

 

 

 

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DEDHAM VALE REVISITED

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802

 

 

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1828

 

 

September touches the Vale like a sigh,

a mellow, fruitful suspiration

edging from green to lemon, agitating

gently the skieyest leaves. The Stour

meanders to a sea of clouds vanishing

over an unimaginable Europe.

Dedham Church, a testament to wool,

focuses an especial scene: Saxon names,

corn marigolds, skylarks and enclosures.

 

After Napoleon, Peterloo and his wife’s

slow death, another canvas shows the same

landscape. New buildings exploit the river

and the church tower is luminous yet

vulnerable, not focal, to a whorl

of cumulus billowing from beyond

the horizon over dark, distressed elms.

Crouched under the overgrown bank of a lane,

the last you see of the painting, with her tent

and her cooking pot, a tramp woman

nurses a child under the tumbling sky.[1]



[1] The poem was first published in the Anglo-Welsh Review, has previously been published on this site and is one of the most visited.

 

 

 

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