By William Scott Hanna
In early morning the tributaries
at Pittsburgh meld, then flow on
for centuries, cutting the valley
out of the earth, heavy with water,
light with stone.
South southwest below the hills
above Bridgeport, Ohio
blackbirds congregate in March by thousands,
lifting, lighting, lifting in sudden bursts
of black wings on a gray sky.
Upriver the black weight that held the hills
feeds the barge anchored below
the towering coal tipple
just beyond Pike Island Dam.
Below North Tenth street what little remains
of the old tree house rots in the sun
where Ricky, Mike, Jay and I choked on the smoke
of our first cigarettes in the summer of ’86,
raided gardens of old men,
and sifted through the sad wreckage of the Ohio.
Off Highland Road at dusk
black heaps rise from the ripped gouge
to hem the mirror-black surface of the slurry
that upturns in the sky the smokestacks
at Brilliant, and Follansbee into something
Near Lower Twin Island, ghosts of poets
loom downriver from tenement campers
where the hungry huddle around flames,
and the living gather along with the dead
to gaze into the currents,
or to wander the B&O right of way,
beyond the ruined bones of the city
searching for a way back home.
Out of the hills, out of the past
and the dark damp woods,
from under the shadow
of St. Joseph’s Convent,
the cold waters of Long Run
I trailed into the valley as a boy
murmur still the age-long secret
of a murdered sister.
Above the double-wides
and gravel-dirt roads
of Meadowlands Trailer park
where standing flood waters
from Short Creek reflect the rust,
the laundry line, flattened bicycles,
crumpled trampolines, fallen satellites,
failed pickups, and broken box springs,
the hills in October burst into
orange and yellow and red flames.
All through the valley
hundreds of years of layers of dirt
and rust and pain and suffering
press the heavy lives
men have lived
and women have lived
and children have lived
just beyond hope toward wondering,
just beyond dreams toward doubting
whether or not the water in the river
has anything left in it
that might save them,
or whether it’s even moving,
or finally, after all this,
just standing still. ■
William Scott Hanna is a life-long resident of Wheeling, WV, in the Upper Ohio Valley, where he teaches creative writing, Appalachian Literature, and American Literature at West Liberty University. He is a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and has had poetry and creative nonfiction published in Cleaver Magazine, Fourth and Sycamore, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, and Still: The Journal.
Cover image by by Jon Dawson via Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0).
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