Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Canoeing with Master Williams

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Canoeing with Master Williams

Article excerpt

Our ancient and approved friend, Roger Williams.

-John Thornton

The root of a nearby apple tree

was growing in his grave after two centuries,

some claim, its form a human skeleton's,

as though he were the saint of orchardists

or founder of some golden age, the kind of elevation

he abhorred, though he loved the yellow sweetings

William Blackstone grew, and ordered

apples by the bushel. In truth he was buried

in a garden by Patience Ashton's grave,

though we know the place of neither,

and not one sermon of his remains. So with

his letters. Some folded by a goodwife

for seed packets, or crumpled under firewood,

others gone seaward in the hurricane of 1815,

and still more doodled upon, or skidded

by a breeze working a trashpile down

a Providence street, 1833. Burnt, lost and stolen,

maybe even forged; shoved into sacks

in offices and archives. The Narragansetts,

whose tongue he spoke and codified in his

Key to the Language of America, torched his home

and papers. Surefooted, crippled, in age he went

upon a stick. Next time you're passing, look for

a canoe hewn from a single chestnut's trunk

and slipping off among freighters and barges

putting in at Providence, more fleeting wish

than ever in these days of collapsed

industrial rainbows floating like newfangled

jellyfish about him, among the steel craft

blind to him because he heaps up nothing for

God Commerce. …

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