Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Personal Challenge ~ Kay Davies

Hi Toads and friends of Toads, it's Kay here—

I've received a personal challenge from Susan, something new to me in the field of travel blogging. Dear optimistic Susan has asked me to write a travel story, in fact a travel poem, from the point of view of a fictional character. I am almost certain she imagined I'd choose the eldest Miss Bennett heading for Bath with one or more of her sisters in a brougham, the sisters chattering inanely and Miss Bennett being blessedly forbearing. But I did not.

I suspect my choice might disappoint Susan as well as surprise her. I beg her pardon for the former, but not for the latter. The characters here have chosen me, and not I them, because the words poem and travel together brought to mind my very earliest days of reading and writing. As a result of my early reading, I wrote a story when I was six. It was called The Life of Tommy John Atwater, and told the adventures of a boy who lived on a pirate ship, and managed to kill 14 lizards in one day.

The boys in today's poem were the first fictional characters to lure a very young Kay Davies with the idea of faraway travel, because they stirred my imagination. I brought these fictional characters together here for the purpose of a trip about which I've long dreamt, not because I thought their writer/creators possessed any particular wisdom, but because of my own fond memories.

Tom Sawyer
Huckleberry Finn
Much as I've always adored him because he is so much fun to quote, Mark Twain was politically incorrect all over the place, of course.
And, as it turns out, Longfellow also made egregious errors, assisted by someone called Henry Schoolcraft, who was responsible for inventing (yes, making up, out of whole cloth) place-names which seemed to be, but were actually not, native North American names.
He managed to mess up Hiawatha for me as well as for Longfellow, and I'm tempted to bet the apparently-learned name of Schoolcraft was invented also. If you happen to be descended from the blameworthy Mr. Schoolcraft, I'm sorry (as in sorry for you for having an inconsiderate ancestor, not sorry as in I'm sorry I cast aspersions upon him).

Wikipedia sketches
I've chosen to write this story from the point of view of one of these boys, partly in prose and partly as a ballad with, yes, perhaps a slightly Kiplingesque mid-line rhyme. More than once I found myself wishing I hadn't done that, but I could hardly stop in mid-epic and write it as haiku or a limerick, could I? Right? So, here we have...

by Kay L. Davies, September-October, 2012

I'm the grandson of Nokomis: daughter of the moon, Nokomis.
When she died, she left me homeless
in the summer of my twelfth year, coming-into-manhood twelfth year,
build-my-own-canoe year, twelfth year.

After mourning, I sought healing, sailing in my vessel, kneeling
in the center, paddles flashing through the water, swooping, dashing.
I grew ever taller, stronger, 'til I was a child no longer.

Canoe on the Mississippi, Minnesota Historical Society photo

My dearest friend Chibiabos, musician and singer, has already gone on his long vision quest, to take his songs to nations far and wide. My other good friend, the strong and faithful Kwasind, cannot go on a quest because his father needs his help at home. 
Now comes the time for me to launch my canoe, made of birch with ribs of cedar, bindings of larch and balsam, sealed with sap and balm of fir, decorated with porcupine quills; the time to launch my canoe, and myself with it, to seek my manhood far from the safety of village and loved ones.
Wigwam at Grand Portage – 
oil on canvas by 
Eastman Johnson (1857)
Wikipedia photo
I set forth upon the water, upon the Tahquamenon and Two-Hearted Rivers, to see what will become of me in my manhood. Loyally, my friend Kwasind swims beside my canoe for an hour or more, then turns around to swim back home again. I know I will miss him.
After five hundred miles, and nearly as many portages, I come to Lake Itasca, the main headwater of the Mississippi River.


Where the taiga of the northland meets leafy trees of the southland,
where the wide and wondrous prairie meets them both, I stop to tarry.
Afterward, I do not hurry 
as I cross the wide Missouri.

Now I cannot remember how long I’ve been gone from home. I only know that something calls for me—calls for me and my canoe, perhaps to embark on a quest greater than that of any other warrior. Who knows?


I am on the Mississippi, in its flow my paddle dipping,
heading south to meet the ocean, meet the wide and stormy ocean.
With no fear or trepidationI leave behind my fathers’ nation.
Here the river’s flowing swiftly, losing elevation sharply.
Many rapids, what do I do? Get out and carry my canoe,
portage across the land until 
I find a spot without a hill.

On my way to the Mississippi, I meet many good people, and at different times I am invited into homes to have a meal, or to spend the night, or both. I tell them how much I admire their wood-built houses, so different from the wigwam of  Nokomis and the other wigwams in my village.
Hennepin Bridge,
Minneapolis, 1860s
Wikipedia photo

My new friends tell me about much larger houses, built of stone and brick, and about places called cities and towns, with high buildings that will amaze me.
I am so relieved they thought to tell me about cities, because one evening I find myself paddling my canoe past miles of tall buildings—it is a city called Minneapolis.


On seeing Minneapolis—oh, I was not prepared for this!
I was pleased my friends had warned me so that I would not fear or flee,
but I was frightened by its sizeand would have turned back, otherwise.

Then I heard voices, challenging, with fearsome words but friendly ring!
I simply had to check to see if perhaps they challenged me.
I found upon the nearest shore two boys playing, and nothing more.
"Hey there, what a great canoe—come here and show it to us, do."

That’s how I met Tom and Huck, two boys who’d had such wondrous luck
to find a treasure in a cave, after Becky and Tom were saved,
but now, it seemed, Huck’s drunken Pap was coming back to set a trap
to kidnap them, the gold to get, so on a journey they were set.

"A paddlewheeler steamer, Hi. And you can come with us. Oh my!
Our cabin is too big for two, there's room for you, and your canoe.
And we will lend you clothes to wear: Huck hardly wears his anywhere,
except the big room where we’ll dine and all the folks is dressed so fine."

I smile at Tom. Huck grins at me. Of course I really must agree—
they promise me I’ll see the sea. I’ll see the wild and storm-tossed sea
as near as here from you to me from where the steamer’s berth will be.


Soon the paddlewheeler arrives, and my new friends retrieve their luggage from under the pier where they had hidden it while they waited.
I, carrying my canoe as if for a portage, accompany them to their cabin after Tom has introduced us to a uniformed steward. "Mr. Thomas Sawyer of St. Petersburg; I have reserved a cabin for myself and my friends Mr. Finn and Mr. Watha," a worthy speech announced in Tom's best dignified-gentleman-voice, makes me smile. The steward smiles in return before leading us to a cabin with four bunks.

Mississippi River at
Hannibal, Missouri
Wikipedia photo
"Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas had us get a cabin big enough for all our school books plus a tutor," Tom explains. "But we couldn't find anyone to tutor us," says Huck, "so we left the books at home. We are now Students of Life."
I agree, solemnly, that Life can often teach us more than books alone.
Nevertheless, Tom and Huck seem to me to be exceedingly excited about the idea of the ship stopping in Hannibal, Missouri, to take on a famous book-writer, the distinguished Mr. Mark Twain, who has promised to read to the passengers.


Yes, to Mr. Twain I listened, but my thoughts were on musicians:
I overheard a crewman say minstrels would join us on the way,
embarking in St. Louis town, and more in Memphis farther down.
The thought of music made me boast of my best friend, Chibiabos.

"You bet we'll find him for you, Hi, and Mr. Twain will help us try.

There's much music on the river, in the towns that line the river,
especially where the river drains into the sea near New Orleans."

St. Louis, Missouri, 1854, Wikipedia photo

We don’t find him in the first group (musicians with a dancing troupe)
but one singer says he knows him, knows that he was headed downstream,
down to Memphis or New Orleans, singing with a group called Jazz Team.

I relax, enjoy the journey, glad now that we will find Chibi,
so I watch the sight, hear the sound, of the river down which I'm bound,
I meet people, hear their stories, see the river's many glories:
a timeless stream, a trav'ler's dream, how wonderful my quest does seem.

On the steamer's a piano. It plays by itself, d'you know?
Late at night when lights stop twinkling, I listen to its happy tinkling,
playing soft like birds I've heard, making music without a word.

Sure enough we do find Chibi, see his name upon a marquee:
"Chibiabos and the Jazz Team" when we reach Memphis, Tennessee.
They've been booked to play onboard here, on our steamer the Paul Revere.
Huck and Tom and I wait for him. Some folks here already know him,
cheering as he comes aboard now, as I call his name aloud now.

My reunion with the brother-of-my-childhood-heart is joyous, with laughter, tears, and still more laughter.
Chibiabos tells me he would like to sing in New Orleans some day.
"Then come with us," I insist. "We have a fourth bed in our cabin. My canoe can be lashed on deck, so we'll have plenty of room."
He promises to think about it, and when he and the Jazz Team perform that evening, I see him talking with the others between songs. Their faces are serious, but eventually they all smile, and none so wide as Chibiabos.
"I'm coming with you!" he exults when the band takes a break. His fellow players have all agreed he should go to New Orleans if he can.

We stow my canoe as cargo, Chibiabos joins us below,
we tell stories, exchange secrets, long into the night our secrets,
of our dreams and of our childhood, all the things we'll do in manhood.
At the dawning we're still talking, folks above us waking, walking.

Chibiabos talks of singing songs that in his heart are ringing.
Huck talks all about the treasure: riches, he says, beyond measure.
Tom tells dreams of Becky Thatcher, no one in the world can match her.
I talk of animals and trees, the sounds of ripples in the breeze,
pricelessness of every creature, of the planet's every feature.

Travel brought us to this spot, travel has proven what books could not:
no matter that we four aren't kin, we're all brothers under the skin.
n.b. There is no connection between the Hiawatha whom Henry Wadsworth Longfellow shares here with me, and the actual, historical Native North American Chieftan of the same name.


hedgewitch said...

My goodness! No wonder this took weeks--it's an amazing epic, Kay. I love the internal rhyming, and the sense of the journey brought out in so many vivid details. There's a definite feel here of all your influences, Kipling to Twain, but even more your own love of both of them and of travel. I especially like the concluding two stanzas. What an excellent response to the challenge.

Always Unlucky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karen said...

This is an inventive, creative, fabulous response to the challenge! I think you must have been channeling Longfellow in that perfect rhyme! Great travel tale!

Fireblossom said...

Wowwwwww, Kay! This is amazing! Really, I'm speechless, I am so impressed. What an ambitious, entertaining, rich story you've told, and the WAY you have told it is as special as the words themselves.

The background at the beginning was interesting and I learned something. The alternating poetry and prose worked really well, which is hard to do. And your rhyming was so skillful! Longfellow would be grinning with admiration.

Finally, the music added so much! This is just a five star challenge. Bravo!!!

kaykuala said...

Fantastic! Brilliant piece of handiwork Kay! I just cannot imagine the time spent to draw from all the storage of knowledge from your arsenal. The alternating prose and verse is most skillful. The challenge? You accepted and won hands down!


Mary said...

Well done, Kay. What an enjoyable read.

Helen said...

.. 'travel brought us to this spot, travel has proven what books could not: no matter that we four aren't kin, we're all brothers under the skin' ~ perfect ending to an epic story/poem. I grew up on the Mississippi, spent years in Minneapolis .. you fed my wandering, travel loving, history loving soul.

Kerry O'Connor said...

This is such a grand response to the initial challenge, Kay. I think you had as much fun writing it as we did reading it, because your enjoyment of the characters shines through each line. I always enjoy your particular brand of humour, especially here in your intro to the epic. Thank you for bringing this all together for our reading pleasure.

Jinksy said...

That was some tale! Thank you. :)

Ella said...

Kay, YOU should write books! Wow, I'm so enchanted with what you have done~ Great idea Susan, wonderful story Kay~ Love it! I love how my mind, wandered into this journey :D

Susan said...

I am NOT disappointed!
I am moved, tickled, surprised and blown away! Kay, you have exceeded my wildest expectations. How delightful and ingenious to plan this trip with childhood companions! I liked/believed their thoughts and dialog and interactions and the music I experienced with them on their way down the Mississippi. (The music was totally an unexpected gift!--You must have spent days just researching that!)
The form works, pulling me character by character through a narration with time telescoped in prose, lived in poetry and united in a forward flow like the river itself. Further, I loved the contemporary pet names and observations your character added--as in the little delta on the end, my favorite part:

" Chibiabos talks of singing songs that in his heart are ringing.
Huck talks all about the treasure: riches, he says, beyond measure.
Tom tells dreams of Becky Thatcher, no one in the world can match her.
I talk of animals and trees, the sounds of ripples in the breeze,
pricelessness of every creature, of the planet's every feature.

"Travel brought us to this spot, travel has proven what books could not:
no matter that we four aren't kin, we're all brothers under the skin."


Thank you for the marvel-full and fun time I spent with your poem. I am impressed. I bow to you. Susan

Maude Lynn said...

Kay, this is absolutely delightful! Marvelous job!

Hannah said...

Such a great challenge you two!!!

Your response is creative and interesting, Kay...

I love the descriptive language you use throughout...

"Now comes the time for me to launch my canoe, made of birch with ribs of cedar, bindings of larch and balsam, sealed with sap and balm of fir, decorated with porcupine quills; the time to launch my canoe, and myself with it, to seek my manhood far from the safety of village and loved ones."

This is one of my favorite parts!!!

Nicely done...rising to the challenge well..thank you for sharing your words with us!!

Grace said...

What a challenge from Susan ~

Kay, you have outdone yourself in this tale ~ I love the prose and places and video links as well ~

You summarized it neatly with the last two stanzas - My hat off to you ~

Marian said...

holy cow, i'm fairly blown away. what a fantastical tale! the voice and the rhymes are just perfect. thank you so much for sharing this with us, Kay!

Susie Clevenger said...

Kay, what a marvelous tale. What time and thought it must have taken to create this piece. Hats off to your talent!!

Margaret said...

Well, the ending is something quite special. And so many delightful tidbits throughout. I applaud the time and energy you invested and it is obvious you enjoyed yourself. To visit with these characters in another setting other than Mark Twain's book was a lot of fun.