I was born on Front Street, right after the '37 flood, in a house my mother's father, Tom McGlone, had built. Dad's first job had been firing the boiler on a ferry boat that took people back and forth from Portsmouth to South Shore, where he lived at that time. His dad, George Burgess, helped build the Grant Bridge, which spanned the river for so many years. During the '37 flood, Dad, Claude Burgess, was one of the "brave gondoliers" who rescued people from housetops with a rowboat he built. One of my cousins drowned at the confluence of the Ohio and the Scioto as she was being transported from Portsmouth toward Friendship with a group of people in a small motor boat, during one of the annual spring floodings, about 1950. The poem recalls these people and events, but also hints at the earlier people, called Indians, who lived along the Beautiful River.
by Jack Burgess
River, you flow deep in my veins,
cold and muddy, shining and warm.
Long ago grandfathers
traveled your highways,
nudged their canoes on your shores,
dipped their hands in you, drank,
splashed the heat from their faces
and coppery bodies.
Grandmothers sang at your edges,
washed clothes, cooked flatbread
over brush and driftwood fires,
watched children playing,
weeping willows blowing,
fish sparkling, frogs leaping,
turtles sunning, snakes sliding
in and around you.
Fathers crossed you, before airplanes,
before you were spanned by bridges,
firing ferry boats, rowing johnboats,
pushing logs, riding the roiling wake of your
paddlewheels, fishing, and jumping
naked from tree limbs into your pools,
while mothers stored cold drinks
on shallow sandbars.
Chemical kings came, compounding
on your plain, burning the skies,
choking the air, scarring your fish.
Tears have fallen into your bosom,
though fish and frogs
and reptiles and water spiders
still live in you, on you,
struggling even more to survive.
You can be cruel river, rising from your
wide bed each spring, powered by rain
and melting snow,
drowning whole cities.
Brave gondoliers in rowboats rescuing
stranded stragglers from rooftops,
helpless men, women, children, watching
their possessions drift toward the sea.
One late winter you took our dear cousin
to yourself, held her too close,
when the motorboat hit the wave
and nosed under. I see her smiling
freckles now. Some travelers you let go,
but not this fearless girl and her
best friend, holding each other
‘til the end.
Now, I bend down and dip my hand
into your ripples, pulling wretched refuse
from your tangled bank.
River, forgive them that they care not
what they do, not knowing
you are alive, that you flow
in all our dreams, and if you die
no one will live.