Elihu Burritt on the road to Charleston, 1853
Behold, a scene from Dante or Greek myth:
the sullen river lit with flares, a ride
across swift waters. On the other side,
more darkness. “Haul the line ashore! Forthwith!”
What small craft dares to ferry this cold frith
that cuts like war? Two compass points divide
a continent that’s washed by bloody tide.
A devil stokes the forge that sears the smith.
You wish to bring some lightness to this land?
The ferryman, the torch-men—how they quake,
these bondsmen black as any slave that fell
from freedom to inferno. Here they stand
and wait their token. Do you mean to make
a cultivated heaven of this hell?
“Crossing the Styx” is a variant of an unrhymed sonnet in Taylor Graham’s book, Walking with Elihu: poems on Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith (Hot Pepper Press, 2010). Visit Graham’s Web site.
Heaven thundering and land dissolving
as salt-surge breaks every-which-way into storm-swell—
isn’t that just the natural world? Perhaps
the merchant’s prayers saved him. And yet
the church he vowed to build keeps falling down.
Every stone he placed by hand is gone next morning,
tossed over the edge into a famished ocean,
as if Brent-Tor couldn’t stand the weight of one more stone.
The wealthy merchant is running out of cash
in this Sisyphus task, hauling up rocks that roll
So the merchant prays again to Michael, who hurls
a boulder at the devil—more rock-fall. Devil limps off
with a gimpy heel. He’ll be back.
But here, at last, a standing church—so small, it just fits
the tip of a beacon-tor, volcanic iceberg
in a tiding sea of land. Does earth yearn
with the devil? Subduction and fault, temblor, eruption,
Here’s this church with its stained
window fragile as ship in storm, glittering