New Nation

By Charles Reznikoff 1894–1976 Charles Reznikoff
I   
Land of Refuge

A mountain of white ice
standing still
in the water
here forty fathoms deep
and flowing swiftly
from the north;
grampuses and whales
going by in companies,
spouting up water in streams
(these wonders of the Lord, I, Francis Higginson,
saw on the way to Salem);
a fair morning,
and still many leagues from land,
but the air warm and spiced—
yellow flowers on the sea,
sometimes singly,   
sometimes in sheets;
high trees on every hill and in every dale,
on every island,
and even on the stony cliffs;
banks of earth
on which are groves of trees,
and no undergrowth of bush or brambles;
the sandy shore overrun with vines
of melons and of grapes
which the beat and surging of the sea
overflows
(this I, Arthur Barlowe, saw);
trees of sweet-smelling wood
with rind and leaves sweet-smelling
as the bark of cinnamon and leaves of bay;
soil dark and soft,
strawberries everywhere,
hickory nuts and sassafras;
here are grapes white and red,
very sweet and strong,
and plums, black and red,
and single roses, white and red and damask;
we have eaten venison with the Indians,
and drunk water with spice in it—
Indian corn, even the coarsest,
makes as pleasant a meat as rice.
(Without any show of anger
the Iroquois crunched our fingers in their mouths,
and with their teeth tore off the nails;
then hacked our fingers off, joint by joint,
with stone hatchets, or with a shell too dull
to cut the sinews;
and in the stumps of our thumbs drove up spikes
until the elbow;
but so great the help of Jesus,
with this maimed hand I, Isaac Jogues,
Jesuit and priest,
baptised an Indian among the captives,
using the raindrops on a long leaf of corn.)

Let others cry, “New lands!
where Indians shall bring
kernels of gold, wagons full of gold;
whatever spills upon the way
we shall tread carelessly,
for we shall have so much of gold—
so many pearls to sew upon our clothes;
away,
unthrifty gentlemen,
to the forests of Virginia!
There are lands
to feed all the poor of England,
trees
to build each a home;
give us but axes, shovels, and ploughshares,
and away then to America,
all you poor!”
In England a watch is set about us
and we are clapt in jails,
and Holland is a dear place,
for there they live by trading—
but we are a plain country people
whose trade is husbandry,
and we would worship God as simply as the shepherds
and Galilean fishermen,
live as plainly;
away,
dissenters,
to New England!
A great wind is blowing,
heavy rain—
thick darkness;
the sailors running here and there,
shouting at one another
to pull at this and at that rope,
and the waves pouring over the ship;
landing in the rain—
the cold rain
falling steadily;
the ground wet,
all the leaves dripping,
and the rocks running with water;
the sky is cloud on cloud
in which the brief sun barely shines,
the ground snow on snow,
the cold air
wind and blast;
we have followed our God
into this wilderness
of trees heavy with snow,
rocks seamed with ice,
that in the freezing blasts
the remnant of this remnant
kindle so bright, so lasting a fire
on this continent,
prisoners of ice and darkness everywhere
will turn and come to it
to warm their hands and hearts.

II
Brief History

Glaciers pushing so far and surely
thaw and withdraw;
even the deep,
while the explosion of its waves
dynamites the cliffs,
leaves new lands,
new groves and habitations
beside the glittering currents flowing quickly
into the silver waters of the sun.

Here are men who find
a comfortable bed
among the rocks,
who wrap themselves
in their coats
to sleep upon the ground
while their horse feeds in the grass beside the lake;
who catch trout in the brook
and roast them on the ashes;
eat the flesh
of bear for meat, the white meat of turkeys
for their bread, and whose salt is brought
in an iron pot across the mountains;
who live
where two hundred acres may be had
for a calf and a wool hat;
or walk where there is no road
nor any man, except the savage.

All the bells of Boston
are tolling
a solemn peal;
the market men will take no more paper money—
hard money only;   
soldiers with bare feet showing through their shoes
in the snow, the smoke of the camp-fires blowing into their
    eyes;
for food a bowl of beef soup full of burnt leaves;
no house or hut, and even the sick in tents.
The rays of your light,
like the sun’s, Republic of France,
shone first in the west; the eater shall give meat,
and out of the strong sweetness—
out of the bones of the French monarchy
the honey of freedom;
the bells of Philadelphia are ringing
as if for a fire,
and the crowds,
shouting and hallooing,
fill the streets;
ring, bells, throughout the night,
let no one sleep;
ring, clash, and peal
until the log cabins and cottages of cedar shingles,
the houses of grey stone or of brick,
tremble,
and the listeners
feel in their flesh
the vibrations of your metal voices
ringing,   
Proclaim liberty,
proclaim liberty throughout the land!

Wrongs,   
like molecules of gas that seep into a house,   
explode
in particles of fire!
A captain gallops down the street,
wheels,
and the hoof of his horse
sends the pie plates shining in the sun,
his horse stops
at what is
flowing from the battlefield,
sniffs at it, and will not cross;
this is not water—
it is blood
in a thick and ropy stream.
(The dying Negress says,
I cannot eat dry hominy:
I lived in Massa’s house,
and used to have white bread and coffee;
and I want something sweet in my mouth.)
On the lawn the Negroes dance
and clap their hands,
So glad! so glad!
Bless the Lord for freedom!
So glad! so glad!

Do not mourn the dandelions—
that their golden heads become grey
in no time at all
and are blown about in the wind;
each season shall bring them again to the lawns;
but how long the seeds of justice
stay underground,
how much blood and ashes of precious things
to manure so rare and brief a growth.

Currents of waste
wind
along the river
between the factories—
the colonnades
and sacred groves
of chimneys;
where once the road
in ruts and ridges—lines of rails
hold to a gleaming purpose,
come wind, come rain, come winter or the night;
build storey on storey out of glass;
light electric lights,   
row after row, whose shining wires
will not flicker in the wind;
let the streets sound
with the horns and hosannahs of motor cars!
Man, you need no longer
drudge at plow or oar, no longer trudge;
proclaim this liberty to all!
If bread may be as plentiful,   
shall we not share it
as we share water?

NOTES: Based on Albert Bushnell Hart’s American History Told by Contemporaries. C. R.

From The Poems of Charles Reznikoff by Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney. Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. Copyright 2005 by Charles Reznikoff.

Source: Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press, 1977)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Charles Reznikoff 1894–1976

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

Subjects History & Politics, Social Commentaries

 Charles  Reznikoff

Biography

Emerson remarked that the best writers often have the shortest biographies. The genius “draws up the ladder after him,” and the world, which had consigned him to obscurity during his lifetime, “sees the works and asks in vain for a history.”
 
Whatever judgment may ultimately be passed upon him, not much more than his works is ever likely to be known of Charles Reznikoff. He left no fervent disciples. The record he wished to . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT History & Politics, Social Commentaries

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.