Tag Archives: Washington Island

In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams to be Published by All Things That Matter Press

by Thomas Davis

I have just signed a publishing contract with All Things That Matter Press for my new novel, In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams. I was first introduced to ATTMP by the books of Diane Denton. The author of three novels (Without the Veil Between is a book that I have recommended on this blog), I have followed Denton’s career before she became an ATTMP author. I have also read some of Mary Clark’s books, the latest being Miami Morning, who is published by ATTMP. Located in Maine, HTTMP has a substantial, and important, list of both authors and books that they publish.

In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams is a novel about a black fisher community that located on Washington Island off Door County before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. At the time it was the largest black community in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee. The novel traces the community from the time of its meetings with Preacher Tom Bennett in the boot of Missouri in the Mingo Swamp through their flight from slavery northward through Chicago to West Harbor on Washington Island.

I first stumbled across the Washington Island community of black fishermen when I was doing research for my non-fiction book, Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit (State University of New York Press), a number of years ago. When I moved to Sturgeon Bay I read Island Tales, an anthology by Kay Curtis, and found a mention of the community again. I was intrigued and started researching in order to write what I thought of as a sonnet sequence at the time. Then, on a trip to Washington Island, the owner of Faire Isle Books, Deb Wayman, told me she would really be interested in a book on the black community since no such book existed. What was first intended to be creative non-fiction later turned into a novel.

The following is the sonnet that introduces the novel:

Inflamed Imagining

A Spenserian Sonnet

Inside the swamp beside a cypress tree
(White herons in the water, bullfrog croaks
A symphony as dusk, as stealthily
As cat’s feet stalking small, shy birds, evokes
The coming night) the Preacher slowly stokes
The fire blazed in his heart and starts to sing
Songs powerful enough to loosen yokes
White masters forged through endless menacing.

The words he used burned deep; he felt their sting
And saw his spirit fire alive in eyes
Awake to dreams, inflamed imagining
Of days spent free beneath glad years of skies.

The darkness deepened underneath the tree.
He’d preach, he thought, then, later on, they’d flee.

I should also send out a word of thanks to Ralph Murre, the former Door County Poet Laureate, who gave me the title of the novel during a poetry workshop at the WriteOn, the writer’s retreat and organization in Door County. It is a paraphrase of a line from a poem by Pablo Neruda.

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Love Singing Alive the Moon

by Thomas Davis

Upon a shore where sheets of ice had stacked
Into a shadowed sky, the full moon round
And silver in a field of stars that tracked
The darkness with eternity, the sound
Of waves beyond the ice a lullabye
That serenaded who they were, they walked
And held each other’s hands and felt the sigh
Of what they’d lived inside the talk they’d talked.

And in between their words, love sang the moon
Alive to whom their dreams said they would be
As passion beat against soft silver strewn
As light across ice shards, a filigree
That echoed pulsing waves, blood stirred, inflamed
Into two lifetimes that was love exclaimed.

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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.

Note:
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.

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by Thomas Davis

Inflamed Imagining: Freedom

Inside the swamp, beside a cypress tree,
White herons in the water, bullfrog croaks
A symphony as dusk, as stealthily
As cat’s feet stalking small, shy birds, evokes
The coming night, the Preacher slowly stokes
The fire blazed in his heart and starts to sing
Songs powerful enough to loosen yokes
White masters forged through endless menacing.

The words he’d use burned deep; he felt their sting
And saw his spirit fire alive in eyes
Awake to dreams, inflamed imagining
Of days spent free beneath glad years of skies.

The darkness deepened underneath the tree.
He’d preach, he thought, then, later on, they’d flee.

Freedom’s First Night, Before Dawn
A Miltonian Sonnet with Two Coda

The white man, with his wide brimmed hat and face
Stunned pale inside a night that breathed with sounds
From woods they’d passed through in their frantic race
Against the coming dawn, turned back around
To look toward the barn that loomed ahead
Of where six families hid in scratchy brush.
He sighed as if he couldn’t flee the dread
He felt in dark before dawn’s first red blush.

“I made a space to hide you runaways,”
He said. He turned again and looked at eyes
That looked at him, cold fear a noxious glaze
Infecting even how the dreaded sun would rise.

“Six families can’t escape at once,” he said.
“I’ve got my family too. They’re still in bed.”

The Preacher looked into the man.
His eyes looked past white outer flesh
Into the place his soul began.
The white man turned again, the mesh

Of eyes surrounding him afraid
To move, to dream, to think they’d leave
This place before their master flayed
Their spirits, made their spirits grieve.

Note:  I’ve included two sonnets from my series on Washington Island’s black community that existed in the 1800s here.  I’ve posted others in the series earlier, although they were not written originally in a chronological order, so they represent how they are written, not how they should appear.  I didn’t know what I was doing at first.  However, the owner of the Fair Isle Bookstore on Washington Island convinced me to write a book about the 1800s black community since no books on that topic exist.  I thought about it, did some research, found some primary source documents, but they were not enough to produce a non-fiction work.  This series of sonnets began to expand.  Then I started writing a novel, which is in progress, with a sonnet ahead of each chapter.  These are the first two chapter heading sonnets in the novel.

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In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams

The Preacher sat upon a rocky hill
Above a cave where waters from the lake
Crashed angrily above the soaring shrill
Of gulls excited by a splashing wake
Of fish caught by the afternoon’s harsh light
Flashed back into the early Fall’s blue sky.

He sat upon the hill, his second sight
Unmoored and wild, and listened as the lie
He’d told himself when struggling to find
The island where his people could be free
Wrapped round reality, the awful bind
Of white men, dark men in the company
Of humankind, their kind, the hunger spun
From dreams once dreamed beneath a noonday sun.

Note: The title paraphrases a line from Pablo Neruda. This is the fourth sonnet in the series I am writing about the black community that existed for a short while on Washington Island off the tip of Door County. It was developed during a workshop led by Ralph Murre.

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The Abandonment of Washington Island By the Island’s Black Community in the 1850s

A French Sonnet

by Thomas Davis

Gone. Like the waves grasshoppers make
Before a boy who runs into a field of weeds,
The news raced through the island as the seeds
Of mystery began to reawake
The sense that something sinister, a snake,
Is in the emptiness that almost pleads
To hear the shouts of children, men whose deeds
Had made glad days of freedom by the lake.

Where did they go? Why did they have to flee?
The island people said, “It is a mystery.”

When Craw’s barn burned, the chill was palpable,
And now the black community is gone.
The news was like a fire, insatiable;
They took their fishing boats and fled at dawn.

The mystery of the disappearance of seven black families, presumably run-away slaves, from Washington Island in the 1850s still persists today.

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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!”

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