Two Sonnets: Washington Island’s Black Community

by Thomas Davis

Like Moses in the Wilderness

Like Moses fleeing from the Pharaoh’s wrath
Before the miracle of waters parting,
The Preacher blazed a trail on freedom’s path
As fear possessed their endless fleeing.
What was that man or woman really seeing
That passed them while they tried to run and hide?
What accident of fate would send them running
When slavers found them tired and terrified?
The Preacher prayed away grim miles and tried
To make their spirits testify that dreams
Are greater than the fear that crucified
Their faith that they could get across the streams
And past the towns that blocked their way and threatened
To let the slavers pounce and leave them bludgeoned.
The Bridge that was a Wall

The bridge, inside the night, was like a wall,
Small, wooden, unassuming, houses dark
Beside a path that seemed to be a call
To all who needed passage to embark
Upon a journey to the river’s other side.
They hid in brush, mouths dry, dread strong enough
To make them sick, and, silently, wide-eyed,
Saw spectres armed with whips and iron cuffs
Stand shining where they’d have to cross the bridge
Without disturbing dogs or waking up
The people in the houses as the ridge
Beyond the river beckoned past the interrupt
That stood between their anxious dreams and where
Their breaths would feel God’s freedom in the air.

These two sonnets continue the long series that tells the fictional story of the people of a black community that actually lived on Washington Island in the 1850s before unexpectedly disappearing. Two sonnets from this series were posted earlier.


Filed under poems, Poetry, Thomas Davis

7 responses to “Two Sonnets: Washington Island’s Black Community

  1. I have read these two several times, and gone back to re-read “Inflamed Imagining: Freedom” and “Freedom’s First Night: Before Dawn.” They are all beautiful sonnets, that create an atmospheric mood, a sense of urgency, and that fear mixed with an idealistic dream. I think you said these were to be introductory to chapters in a novel. The novel, I assume, fills in the narrative, the details of what happened or is happening. As I read these, I am put in mind of Longfellow’s “Evangeline”—another poetic tale of a search and a journey. Have you considered making the whole story one in verse….with the narrative parts in common measure or ballad form interspersed with these wonderful sonnets? I’m wondering, too, about point of view…is the major point of view that of the Preacher, as it somehow seems to come across to me in the sonnets?…(even though there are hints at other points of view, especially that of the white man). This is a very exciting project, Thomas. I’m so glad you have undertaken it.

  2. I was asked to write about the black community by the bookstore owner on Washington Island, Cynthia. I initially had written a couple of the sonnets (much later in the story than these) and was looking for more source material when the owner talked to me. I did a little research, couldn’t find enough for a non-fiction history, so started in on this project. The points of view in the sonnets are different than that of the novel. The novel is the story of Joshua Simpson who escapes with his mother and father (whom Joshua had never met since he was from a different plantation) from the Bullrush plantation in southern Missouri and flees north. The Preacher, Tom Bennett, existed and led the seven black families to Washington Island. The sonnets themselves have different points of view in them, I guess: The Preacher and then the group as a whole. I so appreciate this comment. I could tell this in verse, but I think I’ll finish what I’ve started. I’ve got close to 30,000 words in rough draft at this point. I’ve written two epics, although maybe I’ll take up your idea with another story later on. I like to do long poems as well as sonnets and other forms, as you know.

  3. Beautifully written as always, Thomas. I admire your ability to write sonnet after sonnet with such perfect grace, meter, and rhyme – and such striking imagery. Truly masterful, as always!

  4. extrasimile

    I’ve read these sonnets a couple of times now, and while I’m ‘philosophically’ opposed to the regular beat and the tyrannical rhymes, I have to say any process that yields such lines as—‘as fear possessed their endless fleeing’ and ‘to let the slavers pounce and leave them bludgeoned’ must be worth doing.
    Your ability, Thomas, to write sonnets is truly amazing. Like Cynthia I am itching to see the surrounding story. Some questions: to what extent will the sonnets further the narrative, or will their function be to freeze time to allow the reader to reflect on the action in the narrative? And if the latter (which I strongly suspect to be the case) whose experience will it distill? The character in the narrative? The author (you)? The implied author (if there is one)? Or, the reader herself? Or will it vary? And how much importance will the poems have? Will they serve as sort of epigraphs to chapters (like a good Victorian novel) or actually be in the story—written, say, by one of the characters?

  5. Wow, Jim. The sonnets provide the story, hopefully, with another perspective. I started writing the sonnets before I started the story. When I wrote Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit I had run across a black community that existed on Washington Island off Door County before the Civil War. I did not do any research until decades later when we moved to Door County. Then, almost by accident, I ran across a story about characters from that community and Washington Island’s pioneers. I wrote two sonnets that told those stories, “Arrival of a Prophet in Washington Island’s Wilderness” and “An Incident on Washington Island.” Then I started trying to find more material on that community with the intention of doing more sonnets. This was during the time when slaves could be seized and returned to their masters even in Wisconsin. Visiting the wonderful bookstore on Washington Island I talked to the bookstore owner, and she asked me if I might write a book on the community since only snipits of material existed in books about Washington Island’s history. At first I thought about another non-fiction book. I found some original source materials in the Washington Island archives, but clearly not enough to do even a respectable article. Then, somewhat disappointed, I started trying to find a form that would work. I wrote a third sonnet, “Inflamed Imagining,” and then the story of a young pre-teen boy, Joshua, began to shape into my head. I started writing a novel with sonnets at the head of each chapter.
    The sonnets are outside the story of Joshua, but part of the story. They sometimes tell stories of the Preacher who led the slaves from southern Missouri out of slavery or the group as a whole. They always heighten, I hope, the meaning and intensity of the action happening. Sometimes they tell stories that are outside the direct narrative.
    Am I doing okay explaining what I think/hope is in my head? It’s a challenging project, I’m finding. For one thing I am trying to use different sonnet forms with almost every sonnet. I have in my head a kaleidoscope of different forms that give a constantly changing texture and emotional/story experience.
    I’m hoping the sonnets help create the work of art rather than acting like the epigraphs in Victorian novels. They, hopefully, will be a major sequence, albeit different from the normal sequence, on their own as well as part of the unfolding story of Joshua and the escaped slaves.

  6. Each sonnet here may stand on its own merits. And does. And then to think they also find their place within a longer narrative which while again standing on its own merits stands also as simile and metaphor for so much else so vital yet so little acknowledged in today’s miasma.

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