Incident on Washington Island

After the Civil War
a Miltonian Sonnet with a Double Coda

by Thomas Davis

As Ambrose Betts gulped down the whiskey shot
That Gullickson had given him, his face
Was flushed, the muscles in his neck a knot
So tight he winced, his outrage out of place
Inside the cabin’s half lit single room.

“A Winnebago brave! I tell you Gullickson,”
He said. “As large as life inside the gloom
Of Miner’s kitchen, Bullock looking drawn,
As if he’d seen a ghost, as black as coal.
I’ve never seen the like before!” he yelled.
“An Indian, white man, black man like a shoal
Of pebbles on a beach. The Indian held
His hand up, said, I swear, to Bullock, “You,”
He said. “The first white man I ever knew.”

“Old Bullock, black as night,
Smiled with those teeth of his
So dazzlingly bright white
My head began to fizz.

“And Miner looked like God
About to haul back, smack
The Indian into sod.
A white man that is black!”


Filed under poems, Poetry, Thomas Davis

10 responses to “Incident on Washington Island

  1. Superb Miltonian form, Thomas! I truly admire your ability to compose epic narrative this way. I’m wondering if this is a section from a larger work, as I’m having difficulty keeping track of who’s who–(as in those pesky Russian novels). ..from Betts to Gullicksen to Miner, to Bullock, and then the speaker of “my head began to fizz.”….the narrator? Anyway I enjoyed the imagery of the different colored pebbles, as well as the mastery of language here. Bravo!

  2. A delightful story, Thomas, and you tell it both succinctly and vividly. Do I detect a true anecdote here?

    • It is a true anecdote, John. There was a black community of fishermen and their families on Washington Island off the Door County Peninsula shortly after the Civil War. This incident is recorded, albeit a little differently, in some archival material I have been looking at from that time. I’ve been thinking about doing some research on the community for a new book. I’m not sure there is enough material for a history. I haven’t done any history writing since Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit (State University of New York Press, 2000), but may enough for a novel? Thanks, as always, for the comment. You are a poet I greatly greatly value.

  3. Tom! Every time I think I may finally be cracking the sonnet code (Im actually working on a first, for me, Petrachan! 😄), you come up with something line this. I am in awe 😊

  4. That should read ‘like this’ not ‘line’ 😊

  5. What a magnificent not to say classic incident. I can see why you were tempted to set it in poetic form. And i don’t need to say how well you managed it.

  6. Reblogged this on Ben Naga and commented:
    One to be added to the school curriculum, I’d say.

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