Dragonfly Library

Barnburner, Erin Hoover

Author: © Erin Hoover
Publication Date: October 1, 2018
Ordering: SPD Books, Amazon, Indiebound
Social Media: Twitter, Facebook, Website

Nobody Wanted Such a River

Nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it.
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi


Geography in 1608 being what it was,
Captain Smith thought he’d found
in the Chesapeake a way to the South Seas,
but the Susquehanna’s narrow mouth
surprised his fleet after two miles, where
the plodding water turned rocky and rapid.
Go back, the Englishman might have said
to his crew. Or, staring into the faces
of chiefs who’d assembled at the banks,
Nothing here that matters, about the men

whose final grandsons would be scalped
two generations in by the Paxton Boys,
the Indians’ war practice by then adopted
with European ferocity. I’ve peered through
the rail arches that line the Susquehanna,
poked the charcoaled embers of hobo camps.
I’ve watched fishermen throw back shad
corrupted by centuries of seeping mines,
and thought, I’m no different from anybody
else here, still shoving broken microwaves

into any sinkhole I can find. The river
runs acidic enough to pickle animals,
and wafts like a latrine. But once,
when my ancestors first saw its waters,
trees muffled the forest floor to twilight
at noon. I’d like to live on the Susquehanna,
on that first farm, the only sound at night
a baby’s murmuring, a child who’d grow
to produce its own babies. And so on, until
I imagine dozens of babies, over time,

in a house bricked before the Revolution,
as the towns built up around us took
for themselves some measure of stillness
that was ours. Every family corpse was buried
in the same lumpy field, and this will be
my end, too. So, despite the mine fire,
despite the changeless leach of the chemical
spill, despite trading our malignant
small-town hollow for the fetid trench
of the city, if I climb the blue mountain,

stand over its sweep of land and say, Not me,
I am lying. I was born fifteen minutes
up the Susquehanna from Three Mile Island
in the days they wondered if the check
for ruined DNA and bleeding orifices
was finally in the mail, where in the control room
one worker must’ve turned to another,
surrounded by incomprehensible machinery,
and wondered, Did I do this? But some errors
are too big to be the fault of one person,

and when I asked my mother why she and Dad
didn’t flee with me, their new baby,
meltdown grave on every lip, she said,
Where were we supposed to go?
and I understood. Later, I used to cross the river
every day to buy Oxys in the section
of Harrisburg whose brick row houses
are shredded with flags, still in daylight
as a pocketed gun. We’d get in and get out,
crush the pills on books on the way home,

speeding by islands in a dry season,
or the rising sludge of an upriver rain.
My playground bordered tracks with great
screeching trains, and next to it, the river,
then the hill beyond where a troop of boy scouts
planted their half-assed flag. How could
I know about the approaching army of energy
companies, wells Roman in scale and ubiquity,
built to frack methane, light cities? Our
taps poisoned with champagne-colored

brack. Nothing to do about the wells,
so my brother tells me, when I offer to spark
the water from his faucet with my cigarette
lighter. Tapwater isn’t a form of dignity
until it is. The river promises to swallow
tinkling pianos along with our garbage,
families grateful for any work,
each proposal for a dam or canal
promising a downward flow of money,
before the usual graft sets in. Twain said,

The Mississippi is in all ways remarkable,
but I’ve got nothing to say for this river.
It’s like talking about my own blood,
trying to sense it shivering along
the walls of an artery. Billions
of gallons pass me by daily, and I never
see them again. But I am bound to them,
as a scalp to a skull. With our history,
second nature now to draw the knife
against our own crowns, and pull.

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