Rafting Rise

The Golden Circumstance


I saw Autumn coming toward me
in a golden dress green hemmed,
with scarlet petticoat. I looked
right through her and saw the old forest

inside her trees. I looked and
I was she. I heard then the
ancient languages of elms about
to be forgotten and the words of men

already fallen from memory.
Around me the urgent voices
of sapling redbuds and sassafras
were like a choir of locusts. I felt

the dying maple blaze in the distance
and smelled the dark wet ashes
of the earth. I tasted winter in
my mouth like a strong lover.

Then I began to turn and dance
within my golden circumstance.
Rafting Rise

They would never believe what we
could tell them. There ain’t a damn
soul a’livin’ around here that can
back up my tales. They’s all dead now.

L. Blackman Davison, Ohio Co., KY, 1978

We came to the end
of cutting and hauling
having had enough
of wet bottoms
and yokes of oxen
up to their knees in mud,
pulling at the logs.

We came to the end
of cutting and hauling
when we saw the
great white oak
standing before us
thicker than four
could reach around.

We waited
for the rise,
when Rough River
would swell up
and fill itself,
two-thirds bank,
not too high.

We waited
beside the cold
muddy water
while the creeks
cried out,
emptying themselves
in the swelling river.

We measured time
by the river’s rise
and by the sledge’s
swing as we beat
together our raft
with green hickory
pins and poles

When we first
felt the water and
the current took us,
the logs moaned,
my stomach cut loose
from my body and
floated free with the raft.

Holding the steering oar
was like fighting a great
fish when you
give it line
lest it break away,
yet try to keep it
free from stumps and snags.

The raft pulled and yawed
like it was alive,
but it was the river
that lived. We rode
on its back at the mercy
of cold water
and colder wind.

It was then I cursed
Robin who’d come
by that November day
when my father and I
were firing tobacco
in the barn.
Hey Bill, let’s go

for the rafting rise.
We’ll cut our trees
and ride them all the
way to Evansville
and sell them,
then lie up in the
Acme Hotel and Oyster Bar,

with its fifty cent rooms
and two dollar whores.

So I left my father
and the curing weed
and went across the
river and engaged in
cutting and hauling logs.

Now on the rising
stream, my hands
frozen to the oar,
my ears drummed
as I heard the river
roar at Falls-of-Rough
hiding around a bend.

The first logs rode over
then dipped down
into the white water
rushing below the dam.
Robin was up to his
knees while I was
lifted high. The raft

groaned like our barn
in a wind, but the
pins held and
we floated free.
Robin’s pants froze and
the wind passed through
my clothes like a knife.

At Livermore we
reached the Green
and stopped awhile
to join our raft
to others —
Lou’s, John’s
and Ben’s.

The Marshal came down
to our camp and
warned us off from town,
but Dewey gave him
a bottle and we all
got drunk, forgetting
about the Green

rising up beside us
and the cold
entering our bodies
through our sodden clothes.
That night I dreamed
a late dream
of the warm barn

and the sweet smell
of smoke rising up
around the dry
bodies of curing
leaves, but awoke
cold and sick, here
on the frozen bank.

Five of us
now cut loose our
raft of a thousand logs
and headed down the Green.
If I had thought that once
we navigated the Rough
and jumped its dams

and missed the rocks
at Fishtrap and the Narrows
and joined with other rafts
and then entered the broader Green,
if I had thought that
we had passed the worst,
I had not felt the

power of the Green
in full flood.
Chafing in my mother’s kitchen
I could not have believed
how the wind could strike you
fair at five above
out on the open water.

In the first night’s tie-up
we took true
measure of the raft’s
weight and the current’s power.
In the late winter light
Ben took the skiff
and rowed off

to get a line on
a maple up ahead.
The tree gave way
and almost swamped
his little boat.
Three times he tried,
the third tree held.

Lou wrapped
our end around
the checking port when,
slowed by the cold,
his hand
fed itself
to the hungry rope

just as the raft
swung against
the current .The frozen
rope snapped taut,
hard as iron,
and Lou’s hand
dropped to the deck,

cleanly cut as
by an axe.
He dropped too,
his face white
as the sycamore
that held and drew us
back against the bank.

We bound his wrist
to stop the blood
and put him in our little hut.
But we could not stop
and cut the rope
for the river was on the rise
and Rumsey dam roared up ahead.

The river ran high,
but the big dam held
its place and made
a falls that turned
the river white.
Our bow dropped down
and disappeared.

Robin and John scrambled
toward me,
up the sloping deck.
Ben and I
held on
to the oar
while the stern

reared up in the
frozen air. Again
our good hickory
poles and pins
held tight, though
the raft made
an awful sound.

We ran that day and
night while Lou
moaned in the shed.
The river ate
its muddy banks and
slowly crept
through the drowning fields.

I took my meal
of cold hard meat
at the struggling oar,
wrapped in a frozen
quilt, a quickening
current beating
beneath my feet.

No one spoke
the second day
as we watched
for Spottsville bridge
waiting around a bend.
Everything was speeded up
though the river

had grown so
broad it hardly
seemed to move.
Then we saw
the bridge’s piers
slicing the thick
brown water.

The raft turned
in the current
though four of us
struggled with the oars.
We hit
the center pier

then hung
just a minute
while the pins
flew out like shot
and the bow
sheered off
with a splintering sound.

John, who hung
on the forward oar,
looked startled
then was gone,
while we swung free
and went on down,
our stern become our bow.

The bow logs
kept us company
as we were
swept along.
We entered
the mouth of the Green
and saw

the broad Ohio
before us
like a sea,
but could not stop,
caught by the falling
Ohio drawing
the rising Green.

Helpless we turned
in the current.
I feared we might
miss Evansville entirely
and be swept on to Cairo,
but the Water King,
prowling for rafts

caught in the
river’s sudden fall,
threw us a line
and towed us
to Angel Landing
in the mouth
of Pigeon Creek.

We thawed ourselves
for a week
in Evansville’s
warm embrace.
Though Lou
had not his hand
nor John
his life,

it was only 1917,
and the trees still
were endless
stretching through
the bottoms
far beyond
our sight.

© Joe Survant