Poetry by the Sea Sonnet Crown Contest Winner: “River Valley Hexaëmera” by Matt W. Miller

The Merrimac River, broad and placid, flows down to it from the New Hampshire hills, broken at the falls to make frothy havoc on the rocks, foaming on over ancient stone towards a place where the river swings about in a wide and peaceful basin, moving on now around the flank of the town, on to places known as Lawrence and Haverhill, through a wooded valley, and on to the sea at Plum Island, where the river enters an infinity of waters and is gone.—The Town and the City


What happened was the big ice ripped back like lightning
          dragged its ass north tearing loam from stone

stitching lenticular hills of till birthing drumlin
          after drumlin calving kettle ponds and vining

eskers across the earth like ‘roid roped veins
          and then came water shaking off the shaggy freeze

bursting for the sea again and the river our river rolling down
          from white mountains got bent against granite

and turned a hard tangle toward the east to reach
          the rip and tide and up and down its banks were birch

and ash and wolf and bee cuz sunlight lit upon the gulping
          dirt at last all funk and fecund and by first evening

first tribes moved their breath upon the shore
          called the water Merroh Awke sang it Strong Place.


Called the water Merroh Awke sang it strong place
          and in the spring when herring and sturgeon returned

when salmon walked up waterfalls they Pennacook they Wamesit
          they Narrangansett Amoskeag and Pawtucket

left grudge and axe in the grass and dove for the catch
          they drank in bamegizegak they talked of saba

they tracked spring deer from dawn through late summer
          harvested the fall for winter and spoke of pale men hailing

down with their sideways sick and firesticks and sagamore
          Passaconaway saw when their boats first landed and now old

he tells his people they must bend against the storm that the wind
          blows hard that the old oak shakes and its branches

are gone and its sap is frozen it bends it falls he says
          peace with the white man is his final command.


Peace with the white man is His final command cuz God
          is a motherfucker hell we hammered canoes into coffins

just by coughing in the river so by the time we carried our bibles
          up their banks whole villages were empty but for some bones

with soil already sewn and pools of jumping shad we only had
          to kick the still seething coals to get our fires going

while our kids played with dolls left behind by other days and days
          rolled on we figured ways to kill the Indian and still stay Puritan

damn King Phillip practically made us a country or rallied us rebellious
          enough to dunk a different king and then came a big ass canal

from the Merrimack down to the Charles and water was a will to power
          especially when Lowell used the five-fingered discount to build a

make us industrial then planned a town that taps that ole Pawtucket ass
          to power the loom that we let a woman work at every day.


Power the loom they let me work at every day save
          the Sabbath save my soul if I have to listen to that schika

taka shika tak machine shuttle through me from dawn to dinner
          but debts are due on father’s farm and really there is great fun

with these women although the rooms are small and six to a bed
          but oh to talk and rest my head on her warm hip when the whip

of winter snaps the river when the hours go on forever
          as we barter our flesh and hours for a dollar consumption

is a factor last week a child lost a finger and yesterday our pay
          was cut and now these papists these French and Irish

even worse these unhorsed Greeks slip through the brick
          and take our labor but we really we must all stand together

against the way the work and wages worsen so from toxic dust
          upon our tongues chant we want bread and roses too.


Upon rough tongues the shout for bread and roses too
          spreads up and down the river from Lawrence to all

the valley so every weaver tubercular fevered and hung
          with hunger stood in bullets bare toed to the winter even

as mill boss cops beat down mothers until at last the strikers
          got what we wanted if only for a while cuz then the IWW

moved on to hotter headlines and the bosses whittled us away
          and then the war and even more of them took jobs south

and suddenly this town was down like too many others
          looked like the Kaiser bombed us to brick and cobble

so before The Bust we were already busted even another German
          phalanx of fuckery was only faintly felt by the 50s we were riding

gridiron gods Riddick and Plomaritis even some back named Kerouac
          just to have something to cheer for in damp November.


Just to have something to cheer for in the damp November
          of a city ain’t no small thing and when new jobs come we make

a run of making it work but Wang flared out and gangs
          rolled in like the TRG and Latin Kings and new tribes fishing

for the American scene Brazilian Puerto Rican and Cambodian
          but still too many got lost on no jobs or dope but there was crack

you couldn’t smoke a light in which the city woke to what it was
          what a valley could be where art and history

might be milled into handmaidens of hope and so
          a celebration of self sort of slipped in along with that flood

of oxycontin but that something sure ain’t nothing and the river’s
          cleaner than it’s been for years the hawk and heron

are returning and even Hollywood showed up for Mickey
          for real could a town and river ever be more like Ward v. Gatti?


Could a town and river ever be more Ward v. Gatti
          they way they pounded the way they danced they hugged

us into Sunday rope-a-dope rest to look upon the mess we made
          along our way to love or money and too many bodies rolled over

those falls and too much of earth that cannot be called back
          but maybe here there’s time here for breath and prayer

to name what’s holy there and there before the burn of us
          is snuffed and perhaps there’s no foot upon the treadle

no fingers at the loom just the random warp and weft before
          a doom unto which we will not know we moved

and all the beauty of seeing beauty will be tombed
          all sorrow for sins gone as dark as a sunless moon

but I am nightshade and I love the luster that comes last
          and the lightning way the ice rips back.