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I’ve been writing my mother’s life. I started at its end: “It is that death comes before life” (Ginsberg).[1] Then I started at the beginning and went forward; her trip “down river” in 1945 floated past Memphis, “my ol’ home town alma mammy” – a stage set for terrible feasts . . .

******

“. . . you had a tremendous feeling just being alive. . . .”

 

“Hell, we’d just conquered the world –

we could do anything!”

“In the summer of 46 or 47 (not sure of date)[2]  Virginia and I thought of  the fun in going down the Mississippi. The more we talked, the more we planned. And it happened that a friend of Lib’s was K—D— whose father was on the board of Tiger Oil…through this connection we got free passage on one of Tiger Oil’s small boats that pushes barges from Ohio to Baton Rouge…So we made plans and we went…had to take Lib and a friend……we protested but Mother and Miss Carter won out!!!  It took about four days to make it from Dyersburg…”

 

August 26, 2011. . . . Dear Mom/Lib/Diary,

So, I was tempted to draw some kind of cheesy parallel with Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

You’ll be happy to know I scotched that plan.

But there is something compelling

about going “down river.” Of course, riding on your friend’s father’s tugboat is different than being sold down river (read: a slow, agonizing death).

(that would come later)

 

Aug. 26, 1945

. . . We passed a boat about 8:30.  Capt. turned on the search light and swung it in a wide arch.  The boat answered with two lights – pass starboard or right.  So capt. gave two long blasts of the horn to indicate wilco.  Seems the horn and lights are connected: although the boat couldn’t hear

they could see the flash.

 Gosh, that thing really makes noise –

 

You girls – now –

ventured an after-war water celebratory

Coming Forth By Day.  A new world away from shore,

where everyone’s a buoy.     Water no doubt

floats one past the nasty gravity.

Hence this section takes place

entirely within the sunny conscious mind.       The result:

“a polished representation of the life in question:

a literary product whose narrative coherence as text

stands for the assumed unity of the existence that is be-

ing             described.”

 

A being inscribed   Me,

I want to tell the whole story – all the details, all

historical and storical and interpersonal ramifications, rhizomes, nematodes, and broadleafs.

I want to represent you. I want to represent language.

I want it all.  Wilco.

The margins can never fill up a text, which is always

hyper.

A hyper text contains a story

itching to be told by others.

Flash to the right.

 

The moon rose over Ft. Pillow approx. 9:30.  It was one beautiful sight!  All orange + red and huge. [3]

Before it was dark but the moon really lightened up the world.  . . .


 

“The Fort Pillow affair is not, by long odds,

what it’s said to be by the Yankee side of the house”

(that Gen. Forrest’s men screamed slurs,

killed black troops who’d thrown their muskets down,

took only 58 of 262 as prisoners)

Lt. Witherspoon re:  Tishamingo Creek:

“It would not be long (they thought)

before they’d have the men

who did such havoc on their race

at Ft. Pillow.  No punishment

the savage mind of Africa could formulate

would they have spared us then.

Can you wonder we fought not like mortal men,

but like incarnate fiends of hell itself?”

 

Just then the whistle blew

nearly knocking us out of our comfortable seats.

 two blasts – boat – passing on star.board. 

We turned out the lights + looked out. 

A huge boat like a show boat – Lit up like a Christmas tree –

Must be a dredge boat – has a string of lights to the

shore. 

What a sight!

 

I’m a sucker for particularity.

I can get immersed in the minutiae of anyone’s life,

b/c that’s what it is: seemingly random, haphazard

memories, quotations, and factoids,

dredged up like a Christmas tree on star boards.  Get

knocked from uncomf’table seats to blow up.

Tuck-pointed Oread limestone. A metal dash-board.

The mother’s sunglassed face,

smiling into the back seat towards

her child, illuminated by the evening sun

reminds me of something some time . . .

That “our coming was expected on earth.”

 

Aug. 27, 1945
.  Just as I was dozing off

 a change of tempo in the motors woke me up –

Looked out and    Lo!  Memphis –

 A beautiful sight – just like a picture post card.  Lights

like a huge carnival –

 lots of the tall buildings were lighted –

even in my sleepy state I enjoyed it. 

 

Low Memphis –

my ol’ home town

alma mammy

very like a grand scrim

gaudy Baubo masque

lord what will happen onstage

’fore long –  Hop Frog is on!

“the source of all

evil things in the world.”

 

We were in sight of Mphs for about an hour (had to let off a barge). After Mphs. nothing eventful, ‘cept

 every time the Whistle blew Miss Gin had to hop up +

look out.  At 5:30 [a.m.]  Gin woke me up + said the bell was ringing.

 (It would have to ring louder than that to wake me –-)  So –

 we all hit the deck

and were ready for breakfast      What a breakfast –

biscuits, bacon, eggs, orange juice, jelly – wonderful.

                                                                 [no rationing aboard!]

Sat on the stern +  smoked after eating – Gee,

 that cigarette was good.   fresh air,

 sun just coming up – all after such a good feed – Gee.

 

I’m not going to stuff the story of your life into a hyper- trophic trope.        In fact, I have an ambivalent

relationship to narrative                                  [What is this?]

To presume to place

someone’s life

in a category story

just seems evil.

[“not just as silence

 

But I do want this work to have – an angle.

A hummingbird perches on the line outside.

and

forgetting”]

A red admiral lights out

next to lots of question marks.  Gee.

 

                   Oh yes – the sun is up good now       

a mist is rising from the water – what a sight –

 guess we are about 50 mi. S. of Mphs now –

I helped Lois string beans, cut up slaw and in the meanwhile

was running all over the boat taking pictures. . . .

 Capt. Mc is a good and patient man to put up with all of us.  All of the crew go out of their way to be nice to us. 

At 9:45 we sighted Helena.  Several boats were there. 

     Couldn’t see much of the town  since it was back of the Levee.

 

Can’t see my way to.    I think

it has something to do with the warp

any kind of writing of any life involves.      It has to do with dialogue:         “Hello from the future!” –

The past people can’t shut up – we are joining –

immaterial as us as children weaving.

Like mist writhing from the pictures – what a sight –

Like when I saw a boat go by above my head.

 

Reece came up with a wonderful river map and explained it to us. Saw one of the largest boats on the river –

 the Jack Rathbone.[4] . . . 

. . . Passed several boats – large + small. 

Took a picture of one rather large one – Attu – a victory ship –

one of 20 or so Union Barge Co. (I believe) built during the war –

lots of the boats carrying sulpha[5] up stream –

 

Most of my life I’ve imagined you

a rather static part of the “image-repertoire” –

part of the appeal of this project provides

discovering

(assembling?) your narrative self.

(for you?)    But it’s really me: this is

between past-me and present-me.

 

Or ’30s Lib and ’60s Lib?

Barthes: “I never recognized her

except in fragments.”     the condemned prisoner’s photo:

 

“He is dead and he is going to die.”

We are sure we know the ending, but

there are too damn many things to do

before one dies – a portfolio of forms evolving –

“anticipatory prosthetic memory of the future” –

i.e., afraid you might be right

 

         After supper I piloted a bit –

We ate Hipolyte[6] + crackers with Capt + Reece. . . .

 

P.S. at 10 till 7 tonight Capt. talked to Mr. D—- over short wave – We all listened.


      August 28

. . . Gin + I colaberated on a lemon pie –

I made the crust but Lois did the most 

 Never could make pie crust. . . .

driftin down ol’ linear story time

past eddies and sloughs, where

the course may change the channel

yet.     Never could make it

 

“….The crew of about six….I think….was efficient and the captain let us steer the boat…. He pointed to a spit of sand near Vicksburg, told the story about river gambling boats that plied the river years and years ago…. gamblers who

cheated at cards were murdered and thrown overboard….they ended up on Dead Man’s Curve…”

 

Your textual memories will be implanted now,

pointed, plied, and thrown over years

by the carder’s and the fuller’s art, the pot thrown

up a dead man’s curse

 

at 9 passed the Sprague – largest steamboat in the river –

call her “Big Mama.” . . .



         Noon – Saw Vicksburg . . . I did a bit of steering – . . . 

Govt. owned boat is passing.  has army vehicles. At 3 o’clock

 Gin called me that we were coming to Natchez –

Rushed to the Bridge                 There it was on the Hill.       

Could see 3 or 4 large old houses on top of the bluff. 

“Natchez under the Hill”

 could be seen better.  We saw 4 old, old, buildings –

looked like pictures in Lyle Saxton books – shutters, balconeys, etc –

 

as deep in antebellum land –

all at a picturesque remove

from Then – do da

big mama then imagined

your saying “Laal Saxon”

bridge into Under the Hill.

Swallowed a lot of baloney.

 

“farmers had contracts to light great lanterns in fields to let the ship captains know where they were”

 


. . . We got Capt. Mc + Reece in a hot rummy game –

 

We all plan to stay up all night — ?  –

 

We get in baton Rouge about 4 in the morning –

 

Want to be sure to be awake then –

 

No more writing.        Just et ceteras and so on. 

Sometimes       that’s the break

[“. . . in dis-placements and rearrangements . . .”

 

 

 

 


[1] Cf. Things Come On (an amneoir). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2011.

[2] Late August, 1945, in fact.

[3] “‘Fort Pillow’? – Do you think that’s real? I mean, it makes me think of some little kids with a pillow fort.”

[4] Named for the star of the Twilight series (b. 1989), who hereby supercedes all previous Jack Rathbones.

[5] Probably sulfur, the element, not sulfa, the class of antibiotics.

[6] Probably margarine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Jukka Vuokko

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About Author

Joseph Harrington is the author of Things Come On (an amneoir) (Wesleyan Univ. Press 2011), a mixed-genre work relating the twinned narratives of the Watergate scandal and his mother’s cancer; it was a Rumpus magazine Poetry Book Club selection. He is the author of the chapbooks Earth Day Suite (Beard of Bees 2010) and Of Some Sky (Bedouin, forthcoming), as well the critical work Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002). He is the recipient of a Millay Colony residency and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair.

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