I recently finished reading Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable narrative poem Brother To Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. The poem concerns a real incident that occurred near Paducah, Kentucky—the murder of a slave by Thomas Jefferson’s two nephews in 1811. Robert Penn Warren, who was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905, is the only American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both Fiction and Poetry. Here is a powerful section of Brother To Dragons describing the winter descending on the Kentucky landscape. Given the powerful wave of winter weather sweeping much of the U.S., this seemed like a good time to share these remarkable lines.
Winter: and from the Dakotas
Wind veers, gathers itself in ice-glitter
And star-gleam of dark, and finds
The long sweep of the valley.
A thousand miles and
The fabulous river is ice in the starlight.
The ice is a foot thick, and beneath,
In the interior of that unpulsing blackness
And thrilled zero, the big channel-cat, eye lidless, hangs
With white belly brushing
The delicious and icy blackness of mud.
But there is no sensation. How can there be
Sensation when there is perfect adjustment? The blood
Of the creature is the temperature of the sustaining flow:
The catfish is in the Mississippi and
The Mississippi is in the catfish and
Under the ice both are at one
Would that we were!
Wind rises. Even the deep
Intimacy of the thicket shudders. The last burr that clung
On the chestnut bough surrenders, the last haw-fruit,
And what crimson berry of dogwood the possum has spared
Falls now, in the hour past pain, of the relaxed tendon.
Far north the great conifers darkly bend and unburden
Their dignity of snow, and the stridor
Rises to anguish. The oak
Stands on a headland above an enormous curve of the river.
It has stood there two hundred years. The trunk is iron.
The oak’s comment is anguish, but
All night, like Jacob, it wrestles the
Pitiless angel of air. The stars are arctic, and
Their gleam comes earthward down
Uncounted light-years of disdain,
And the continent
Glitters whitely in starlight like the great dead eye of ice.
The wind is unceasing, and the stars likewise.
–Robert Penn Warren, Brother To Dragons: A Tale In Verse and Voices.