The Definitive Telling of John Henry's Tale


As you may have known or witnessed firsthand, I recently wrote and performed two brand new works of poetry for the MN Fringe festival. I was graciously invited to be a part of the Strange Liebhard New Music and Dance Ensemble's showing of works in progress "Railing Forward and other works". You can check out other blogs about a few entries back.
Asked the week before if I had some poetry to contribute while on my way out of town, I returned with just a few days to complete two new pieces. Although there's definitely room for editing/work-shopping, I'm really pleased with how these turned out. Here's the first one I wrote.
'The Definitive Telling of John Henry's Tale'
Her pregnancy was a tumultuous fault line
sticky with heavy air and a tall glass of lemonade.
Ice cubes on temples and cramps like tremors of a foreboding quake.
She was mother as rich as ripe soil of a damned river bed but opposite,
and golden from the inside.
Even her migraines must have felt like the tense whirling of a Singing bowl.
The sinew of her writhing frame disguised redwood, fighting to stay in character- Almost laughing at the absurdity with the other trees in the hot summer breeze.
Her smile, a horizon's thick blood orange sun,
undamaged by the dark ooze of coming night.  
Bold enough to drench you with emotion but not to blind you,
because that would just be too self indulgent.

This mother earth of a woman gave birth like the pressure of volcanic rock creating new continents. 
And thus a boy was born a mountain of a man.

This is where I have to point out something about how tall tales are told.
Like all legends, myths, religions, and poetry, they exaggerate a certain, innate truth. This mighty boy John turned great man John Henry was actually an average child of weight and size.
It was his in eyes, the center of a presence like the sun of our solar system.
All things a pattern around his gravity.
It is true that at as an infant he could not be held by cradle, playpen or fence, and that you could see specs in the air above his home from around the town of Talcott West Virginia; family pets juggled for fun.
True that at the age of five his footsteps broke the panels of his home and that as a teenager those specs in the air became local livestock and that he would empty whole lakes with the leaping shout of "cannonball!!!". True, indeed, but it wasn't his size that caused these things, it was his presence.
Imagine the weight of a sunrock living and breathing and playing and laughing in the atmosphere of our little blue earth. It wasn't his size imposing itself on his surroundings, it was the gravity of his will...all things bending to it, heavy as the sun itself.
In this sense, to look at this man and his story reveals a legend not of strength but of gentleness. His compassion for the family of workers that surrounded him was only surmounted by his efforts as an organizer; first in slavery, meeting in dreams with Harriet Tubman and conspiring with The Underground Railroad and the recruitment for John Brown’s raid. This force of nature remaining in slavery, throughout the war, only to see that others would be free – and later, once free himself, when big business swarmed to take the rightful stock of the proud workers he knew and loved; A good days work, respect and proper compensation and a humble place to call home.

Now, the rest you know. He fought to prove mans worth over machine, mining through Big Bend Tunnel and in doing so, died.
Or so it is told. You might say he lives on to this day.
There is another legend that speaks of his ashes, only becoming ashes after a slow burn of ten days and ten nights, were spread over the railroad tracks where he built his path to greatness; learning the depth of a days work when applied fully by ones mind body and soul. It's said that these ashes, indestructible and so fine as to be invisible to the naked eyes of science, are in all the winds of our globe and rush to the aid of any true statement or courageous act.
That said, walk like John Henry. Choose your hammer, choose your mountain and let’s get to work.


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