from A Bit of History

by Roo Borson



I followed the path into the woods, and just as my friend described, it led across the old railway bridge. The water beneath the bridge was wide and deep and not particularly clear. It seemed to swell as it flowed, as if pushing something unseen downriver. Indeed a large dredging barge was planed in the midst of the river, doing its unseen work. At one point along the right-hand side of the bridge was a bronze plaque, along with three poems and some plastic flowers tacked to the wooden railing. A boy had jumped to his death here some time ago it seemed, and the poems – one by his parents – were there not only to mark the loss, but also as a means of speaking with him directly. The poems, expressed in commonplaces, were not fine art, but they were communication. They were the sort of poems that say what they mean. Amazingly, almost superstitiously, people still fall back on writing poetry when they feel they have something truly important to communicate.

I understand the parents’ wish, despite everything, to speak to their son, though if it were up to me I’d take the poems and flowers down. Yet I too would like to place a poem on the bridge for those who’ve gone under, as well as those of us who’ve stayed above.

On the last night of the year
the swans set sail at evening.
Then among the boats and fireworks
we can see the black water,
the city in the river.
That’s where all our life is,
beyond the grief and failure,
the wake among the reeds.

Down there
down there
what is that place now
but a hill studded with lights
and a pine tree that doesn’t move with the wind?
Wherever there is summer,
wherever the crickets sing to it,
that place is.
But longing is a wind that blows through you,
and like the pine that is nowhere
you do not move.

Notes on the Poem

Roo Borson's poetry collection Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2005. These excerpts from "A Bit of History" from that collection show how she melds poetic forms to achieve results that are approachable and quietly unforgettable. The two paragraphs shown in this excerpt frame an eight-paragraph prose poem segment. As the Academy of American Poets' explanation of the prose poem form states: "While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme." Borson's words here display all of that and more, including a plain-spoken symbolism almost from the outset: "The water beneath the bridge was wide and deep and not particularly clear." It's intriguing that Borson uses the prose poem form to discuss, in a comfortably conversational fashion that softens an underlying hint of criticism, perhaps, how people turn to poetry for solace and to communicate their feelings. "The poems, expressed in commonplaces, were not fine art, but they were communication." That accessible tone is likely what attracted Jennifer Cox to not only engage with Borson's poem, but to feel welcome to disagree with the contention that the parents should take their memorial poems to their son down from the site where he ended his life. Reading Borson's words, then seguing to the reaction from Cox has an inviting, again conversational flow to them. Whatever their shortcomings, Borson's narrator here acknowledges the value of the parents' poems. The two stanzas concluding this excerpt take cues from the prose preceding them, and do the same thing. "They were the sort of poems that say what they mean."

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