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Canoeing with Master Williams

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

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. Sorefooted, 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. He is going to Cocumscussoc
one more time. It wouldn’t harm you to dip a paddle
with him. Anon he may explain how we began
with Providence Plantation and came to Plunderdome,
hirelings and hatchplots fleeing down the granite steps,
fists full of their God Money. Nor will it hurt
to hear him praise the Father of Lights for the Sea Turn,
that south wind coming early with the sun and
strengthening from the southwest toward noon.
Nor to hear the splash of his anchor stamped with Hope.


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