Little Popple River
by Jeff Burt
One road led to the cabin on Little Popple River
and ahead it looked like an old man, wrinkled, buckled, sunken.
I drove at times with clenched teeth and hands,
at other times loose, as if my bones
had slid from my body and were seated
on the passenger’s side, a few times
with a hollow gut turned childish
when the ride made the low swales
of asphalt vanish or the high rises pitched
the truck such that I could see sky
and nothing else. That made me think of Tubman,
who at night said all she could see was the Drinking Gourd,
the prescient Dipper in the northern sky–
the rhythm of walking in the forested dark
not unlike the passage at sea,
one step a sudden swallowing in the furrow
and the next riding the tower of a wave
launched into nowhere.
At the speed the road forced me to travel
I knew I would not make the cabin
and the comforts of friendship that night.
That day I had visited a safe house
on the Underground Railway, a humble
almost claustrophobic home with a secret passage
where I had to bow at doorways to fit
and the steps were shorter than my shoes.
I had imagined the house would be large,
enlarging, a place where a freed person could relax
and stretch and feel the full length of freedom,
not have to tuck, shrink, and curl again.
I stayed in my car overnight. The seat
not long enough for my frame, I tried to sleep
sitting aslant, but Tubman’s pull kept me awake,
and quietly rose, hushed the closing of the door
and stood out in the woods with the pines sighing
and the stars vivid without a moon.
The Dipper poured. I drank.
I drank an unbound freedom and cried
and laughed and felt the wounds of misery
if not healed then dulled. When done, I shrank,
I hung my shoulders and drew them forward
and with head bowed returned to the car
with my watch ticking and feet cold.
Salvation occurs often and triumphantly alone,
but between people it is seldom.
That historic stretch that Tubman made,
that far travel on foot, that long reach
of her dream, that recapturing of the soul’s expansion,
it has seldom ended. For many,
the doors remain a smaller size.
Even with freedom they must stay hunched to enter in.
When I reached the cabin in the morning
at Little Popple River my friend apologized
for the road, but no, I told him, no,
but I had no way to tell him then
I had encountered a fleeting joy
bound by a continuing sorrow,
and, returning late that night, would again.
Sources: The poem is a true story of a visit I made to a friend’s cabin in Wisconsin after having toured a stop in the Underground Railway. For living in a northern state, I was fortunate to have a father introduce me to Martin Luther King, Jr., the marches, and demonstrations at a young age.
Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California, with his wife. He has contributed previously to Red Wolf Journal, to Williwaw Journal, Heartwood, Willows Wept Review, and Farmer-ish.