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Poem: "A Song for West Virginia "

We give the mountains our names / and they stand still...    — Irene McKinney
Mountains called Nathaniel, Coal, Cheat, Blair.
Rivers called Potomac, Kanawha, Greenbrier, New, Elk, Ohio.
Remembered places:  Droop, Green Bank, Arthurdale, Blennerhassett, Matewan.
Beauty and tragedy, heroism and courage stitch the patches of our history’s quilt.

These are not easy times, nor were theirs. 1863 not easy 
    — western Virginia families split by war.  How speak ease 
    with typhus, women and children outnumbering 
    men, growing death lists of the young 
    lost at Antietam, Cloyd’s Mountain, Winchester? 

Nor are ours easy.  Jim, in his chinos, 
    panhandling the crossroads; families 
    at the dump, weather channel wailing, mother 
    nature mainlining, new diseases spawning.
Our forebears knew to dream and begin again — a cloud of witnesses 
     watching even now — for there are “frail forms fainting” still at our cabin doors.

Forgotten and remembered names — let our fingers trace their scars 
     on the skin of who we might yet be.

Shawnee, Cherokee, Hopewell, Adena, our ancients
     dreamed, knew god, knew art, knew words:
      “Who is there to mourn for Logan:  not one.”  
We mourn the roads not taken, and yet … let that go, celebrate 
     the roads we have taken:  Skygusty, Squirrel Alley, Pickle Street,  
     Sally’s Backbone. 

Who blazed these paths?  Van Meter, Morgan, Zane dared
     these vast shadow forests of unending mountain.  Dozens, hundreds, 
     thousands followed carving their square of sky from these eastern hardwoods.
They dreamed the wild could begin a home, and so wild we began.
Between early wars, forgotten settlers battled bears and painters, drought and flood,
     speculators, loneliness. Yet some from those years remembered:  Gass in Wellsburg,   
     with words, captured Lewis and Clark, Booker T. learned freedom here, 
     dreamed it forward for generations of others, and some rode the very steamboats 
     dreamed by James Rumsey.

Steamboats?  In 1851, a Swedish nightingale stepped off one and sang — Jenny Lind 
     sang, and only blocks away, a century later Eleanor Steber sang, lured angels with   
     Strauss, Wagner, Rossini.  
Throughout these hills, song and music:  Blind Alfred and George Crumb, Melvin Wine    
      and Hazel Dickens, Chu Berry, high and low notes, each could hit them all, hit them,    
      like Brett, out of the ballpark.

West Virginia:  brick streets and churches dreamed and begun here.
Here Alexander Campbell and Matthew Clair dreamed God
     and, keeping their paths straight, thousands joined them.  Who knows even now 
     where the line is between dream and fact, between Creation and Big Bang?

Free mail and 4-H camps dreamed and begun here.  
But this thirty-fifth state was first dreamed in bloodshed between north and south.
Between east and west, the old Commonwealth torn and so West Virginia arose:   
     statesmen and heroes fought for family, tradition. Stonewall stood on the wrong side,   
     where there was no good side, but courage and tactical skill knew no better. And 
     Pierpont, Boreman, Carlile, likewise, with courage and skills of language,  
     forged our new state, this very one upon which we stand.

Anna Jarvis dreamed and began Mother’s Day here.
Golden Delicious apples dreamed and begun here.

Here at Big Bend, John Henry, to whom even poets bow their heads,
      hammered hard and hammered fast.

And Chuck Yeager flew fast, faster than these sentences, than even their sound.  
      Homer Hickam dreamed the sky itself, shaped rockets, then words to tell his story.
      And Adrian Melott reached between the stars to the dark matter, dreamed the 
      very structure of the cosmos.

John Nash dreamed numbers in his beautiful mind, played games where good money
      trumps greed. And Mary Lou Retton dreamed a single number, a perfect 10.
Electric railroad dreamed and begun in Huntington.
Minnie Harper dreamed and became first African-American woman in legislature.

In Pocahontas County, beyond the beyond, Pearl Buck and Louise McNeill conjured and   
       crafted words to dream beyond that beyond, words known now around the world. 

Dreaming and beginning . . .  
All our heroes for the working class:  Sid Hatfield, Blizzard, Mother Jones, Reuther,    
    Hechler, Larry Gibson . . . shoulder to shoulder.  Look close at the bullet holes in those 
    courthouse steps in Welch, those same holes in Larry’s outbuildings.  Look close at the 
    big hat with the little woman and the fiery voice.  
    And all the Good stand with us still.  We hear them singing. 

Remember, too, the forgotten whose names are scratched in stone in   
     moldering cemeteries just over yonder where the blackberry blossoms:  Lloyd who 
     showed me the old Miller place, a Maiden’s Blush apple gone wild. Roy who 
     showed me a spring cold as ice in hay-making August.  Norma who 
     showed me the widow’s mite in towers of food.  Gwen and Melvin who showed how 
     country folks define gentleman, lady. 

Maestro, let us play a tucket on those fiddles!  Let them ring!
Let the bells chime!  Let a sanctus slide, echo down the Ohio,
     up the Kanawha, the New, the Elk.  Sing those liquid notes of the rivers. 
“Mountain water makes the difference,” the old slogan said, 
     and still does.  Moonshine and spring-shine, cold and fire have tempered our blood
     and here we yet stand.  Here we dream and begin again.

So whoop it up, this celebration, dream it big!  Add names 
      to this song, yours, mine and all those to come.
Do as our ancestors across the waters did — light bonfires atop hill and mountain,
     let the message travel from Charleston to Bluefield, from Williamson to Harpers    
     Ferry, and back to Wheeling, that mountaineers are still free! 
Someone carve a story, a blueprint of just what might be done, what might be said. 
Someone scavenge the detritus of the flea market, take hammer or brush, assemble new
      dreams for rust and whitewash, Annunciations, the Fulton Dairy Queen.
And on the back porch, Bonnie and Paul once again spin us the old tales new:  
      the preacher on your mother’s lap, the monster stick that hooks a bear. 

Listen again, the old tunes,
     the long ago mornings, the lost ones . . . 
Listen to Wilson Douglas, Phoebe Parsons, Harvey Sampson whose fiddle     
     leads us through those Yew Piney mountains.
Scrape and trill, drone and run like a river through the mountain’s heart. 

One hundred fifty years and hundreds more to come . . . think of it! Take up the patterns
     of those who’ve given us their lives. Take up the patches of this history quilt, this 
     dream-flagged quilt.  Wave it high and walk proud these crumpled folds and crags of 
     mountain and valley, these green, rolling hills.  And let no man haul it away, no  
     coward with a bankroll buy us out, no circus fast-talkers take what’s ours.  

And what a dream — still ours, still new, just beginning.  Again, that bell, again those 
      trumpets, fiddles, drums, hands together, how sweet the sound.  Let us clap!  Let us 
      sing!  And though we know, President Kennedy, that the sun, indeed, does not always 
      shine here in West Virginia, you were right — these, our people, always do, and 
      always will.  West Virginia . . . you are my home, our home. Forever may you sing, 
       and forever may you shine.     

The epigraph by Irene McKinney is from her poem titled, “Home,” Vivid Companion, Vandalia Press, Morgantown, 2004. McKinney was the poet laureate of West Virginia from 1994 until her death in 2012. 

“A Song for West Virginia” was commissioned by the Wheeling National Heritage Area for the West Virginia Sesquicentennial. The poem was read by Marc Harshman in Wheeling and at the State Capitol in Charleston in June 2013. 

Source: Marc Harshman, 2013.

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