Wednesday, March 27, 2013


In RI is a book-length documentary/history poem, a member of that extended family of American experiments stemming from epic models of Pound, Williams and Olson.  It's a story of meetings, conjunctions, intersects - Quakers and Puritans, Roger Williams and Narragansetts, the poet and his ancestors.  I try to let the odds-&-ends of present-day Providence soak in a pool of upwelling personal and historical memories.  For example, there's a passage in which the narrator is sitting in his kitchen one autumn day, and the power goes out.  "Narragansett Electric, working on the lines."  The names and traces of the past remain.  You can read it online here.

I don't remember what exactly triggered the poem, but it may have been a research visit to nearby Salem, Mass., around Halloween.  I happened to be at the Essex Historical Institute, and decided to look up some family history in the old colonial records.  I discovered then, to my fascination & dismay, that my Gould ancestors had been deeply implicated in the Salem witchcraft trials.  The Goulds were early settlers in next-door Topsfield.  Priscilla Gould, a sister of my gr-gr-etc.-grandfather, was a grandmother of the scandalous Salem girls who lit the very match to the 1692 conflagration.

Roger Williams is the ostensible hero.  The poem moves from his city-state, Providence, to London, where he fought to ratify the pioneering RI colonial charter, granting "liberty of conscience", separation of church and state, and then into a sort of Miltonic dream (John Milton was a friend of Williams).  But RW's' exploits take place under the benevolent aegis of his hosts and allies, the Narragansetts : and they are the true tragic figures - protagonists and chorus - of this tale.

The poem opens on an autumn day, with the narrator noticing his ex-wife, walking slowly to work, to teach her Italian class.  The scene sets the tone of guilt-wracked memory (personal, tribal) which suffuses this New England saga.  Mysteriously, the project came full circle when I received an email from an online poet-acquaintance in Italy, requesting something of mine to translate into Italian.  I sent her the In RI ms., and, wonderfully, she proceeded to translate the whole book.  So this poem, which begins with evocations of Dante and Italy, comes to you in a bilingual edition - thanks to the kindness and generosity of Anny Ballardini.  (Anny also wrote an interesting essay about In RI, which you will find here.)

In RI ebook @ Lulu

In RI pbk @ Lulu