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By Broad Potomac's Shore

Karren Alenier

Poetry and its history in Washington, DC are bringing attention to the hard truth that the Nation's Capital is nothing more than a territory with no voting rights, that Black lives matter, and that women's voices have always been consequential though not necessarily heard. How so, asks the Steiny Road Poet? 

 

Roberts_Cover_BYBROAD-cr1

 

Through the publication of By Broad Potomac's Shore, a unique anthology compiling poetry written from 1800 to 1930 by writers who had significant connection to Washington, DC and through whose biographies tell the city's history. While selections made by editor Kim Roberts reveal the hardships of a city used as the major trading point for slavery in the United States as well as a refuge to those emancipated and, mostly all those years and still now, under the choking control of Congress, Roberts' intention is to define what it meant at that time to be an American.

 

Heart-rending is the story of Arthur Bowen, an enslaved young man whose DC owner permitted him to learn how to read and write and to attend public lectures. One evening in 1835 after a lecture and then a stop for drinks with friends (many of whom were free people of color), he returned home, tripped over an ax in the hall, and made the mistake in his somewhat inebriated state of picking up the ax, and then proceeding to his slavemistress' bedroom to check in. Mistakenly, she thought he was armed to hurt her. Chaos ensued for days and, months later, he was sentenced to hang which his mistress regretted so much that she organized a petition for a pardon but the pardon came with conditions. The slaveholder was forced to sell Bowen and, once that happened, all record of him stopped. While he was in prison awaiting his hanging, he wrote this poem:

 

FAREWELL

 

Farewell, farewell, my young friends dear;

Oh, View my dreadful state,

Each flying moment brings me near

Unto my awful fate.

 

Brought up I was by parents nice,

Whose commands I would not obey,

But plunged ahead foremost into vice,

And into temptation's dreadful way.

 

Nothing did I ever drink

But liquor very strong

Lo I never used to think

That I was doing wrong.

 

To me was read the awful sentence

Oh dreadful in my ears it rang

They gave me time for my repentance

And then I must be hanged.

 

Good bye, good bye, my friends so dear,

May god Almighty please you all,

Do, if you please, but shed a tear

At Arthur Bowen's unhappy fall.

 

Bowen's poem was published in a paper called The National Intelligencer, the same paper that had originally fanned the flames that caused a mob intent on a vigilante hanging to destroy a local Black business and a Black school.

 

"Farewell" was the only poem known to be written by Bowen. Steiny who is not a fan of 19th century poetry which can be filled with facile rhyme, stilted meter, over used literary allusions, and sentimental pronouncement thinks this poem is good and succeeds in the writer's intention to garner sympathy for his plight. The poem was in Bowen's handwriting, so it was clear it was his work. And had he not been sold away from DC, he might have published other socially poignant poems.

 

What's unusual about By Broad Potomac's Shore is that the editor has mixed in what may be called amateur poets with professional poets and writers to tell the story of Washington, DC. The volume includes prominent poets like Walt Whitman who is being quoted in the anthology's title.

walt-whitman-cr

BY BROAD POTOMAC'S SHORE (excerpt)

 

By broad Potomac's shore, again old tongue,

(Still uttering, still ejaculating, canst never cease this babble?)

Again old heart so gay, again to you, your sense the full flush spring returning…

 

Whitman came to DC looking for his Union soldier brother who was said to be wounded. After Whitman found his brother who was wounded but not seriously, he stayed on to nurse the many acute cases.

 

There are surprising internationals like French poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, Roberts-author-photo-1-by-Jwho lived in DC from 1893 to 1936. Roberts presents a provocative poem "Sieste" ("Nap") which speaks of a sleepy town like DC all closed up for the afternoon rest that ends with a peek behind the blinds at "a young girl the color of cinnabar." Also included is Gertrude Stein's friend of the American ex-pat community in Paris Natalie Barney who lived in DC as a child. Roberts points out that Barney was the "first woman poet to write openly about lesbian love since Sappho." Including Barney speaks to the robust history of gay life in the Nation's Capital since the turn of the 20th Century.

 

More firmly planted in DC was Jane Grey Swisshelm, a white abolitionist, feminist, and contributor to numerous newspapers where she published individual poems, often under the pseudonym Jeannie Deans. After petitioning President Millard Fillmore for entry to the Senate Press Gallery, she was the first woman granted a seat there. The following verse shows her unabashed proclivity to speak her mind:

 

TO GEORGE D. PRENTISS

 

Perhaps you have been busy

Horsewhipping Sal or Lizzie,

Stealing some poor man's baby,

Selling its mother, may-be.

You say—and you are witty—

That I—and, tis a pity—

Of manhood lack but dress;

But you lack manliness,

A body clean and new,

A soul within it, too.

Nature must change her plan

Ere you can be a man.

 

Swisshelm's biography details that Prentiss criticized Swisshelm saying, "She is all man but the pantaloons."  Prentice was a slave-owning writer-editor and poet who developed the Louisville Journal (Kentucky) into a major newspaper. Swisshelm published this poem in the Pittsburgh Saturday Visitor (sometime between 1847-1851), a newspaper she developed for "the promotion of moral and social reform."

 

Some of poets included gathered together significant communities of writers in DC. Georgia-Douglas-Johnson-crFor example, poet-playwright-songwriter Georgia Douglas Johnson who hosted weekly salons in her Northwest DC home from 1921 to 1928 drew such writers as Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke. While some of the writers who attended Johnson's Saturday Nighters gatherings, like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, Kelly Miller, and Jean Toomer, are included in By Broad Potomac's Shore, one surprising omission is Langston Hughes who began publishing in 1921. Here's a poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson that speaks to the racial dangers of her day.

 

PREJUDICE

 

These fell miasmic rings of mist with ghoulish menace bound,

Like noose-horizons tightening my little world around.

They still the souring will to wing, to dance, to speed away,

And fling the soul insurgent back into its shell of clay.

Beneath incrusted silences, a seething Etna lies,

The fires of whose furnaces may sleep, but never dies!

 

There is so much to explore in By Broad Potomac's Shore—and according to Roberts in an interview conducted November 13, 2020, the book could have been twice the size except the University of Virginia Press said it would then have a price point Roberts considered to expensive. She then cut down the book and said she didn't regret those who didn't make it into the published anthology. Steiny offers one final poem by Muna Lee who was a leader in women's suffrage and the Pan-American movement.

 

ELECTORS

 

The drugstore was a club, in whose talk took part—

Tall men, slouch-hatted, neither old nor young

Men who had failed elsewhere, and who had wrung

Stakes from scant capital for another start.

Not hopeless men: here was a junction which

Ensured a Harvey Eating House; next year

Congress would pass the Enabling Act; right here

Would be a metropolis: they would all be rich.

 

These consummations meanwhile they awaited

In the drugstore, talking politics till night.

Texans, farmers, and carpet-baggers they hated;

Feared the Negro—"This state should be lily-white,"

And arguments to damn whatever scheme

Were the epithets "Utopia" and "dream."

 

The poem has currency in the reference to Congress passing the Enabling Act which would turn a territory into a state, something that hasn't been done for Washington, DC. One of the lessons offered up by "Electors," and other poems in By Broad Potomac's Shore, is that much of the United States population has not outgrown its prejudices.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her Blog.
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©2020 Karren Alenier
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

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