One River, One Boat

I know there’s something better down the road.
— Elizabeth Alexander


Marjory Wentworth’s poem, “One River, One Boat,” was cut from South Carolina governor Nikky Haley’s inauguration in January, 2015. The snub made national media, and sparked conversation from local and international outlets.

The poem

Because our history is a knot
we try to unravel, while others
try to tighten it, we tire easily
and fray the cords that bind us.

The cord is a slow moving river,
spiraling across the land
in a succession of S’s,
splintering near the sea.

Picture us all, crowded onto a boat
at the last bend in the river:
watch children stepping off the school bus,
parents late for work, grandparents

fishing for favorite memories,
teachers tapping their desks
with red pens, firemen suiting up
to save us, nurses making rounds,

baristas grinding coffee beans,
dockworkers unloading apartment size
containers of computers and toys
from factories across the sea.

Every morning a different veteran
stands at the base of the bridge
holding a cardboard sign
with misspelled words and an empty cup.

In fields at daybreak, rows of migrant
farm workers standing on ladders, break open
iced peach blossoms; their breath rising
and resting above the frozen fields like clouds.

A jonboat drifts down the river.
Inside, a small boy lies on his back;
hand laced behind his head, he watches
stars fade from the sky and dreams.

Consider the prophet John, calling us
from the edge of the wilderness to name
the harm that has been done, to make it
plain, and enter the river and rise.

It is not about asking for forgiveness.
It is not about bowing our heads in shame;
because it all begins and ends here:
while workers unearth trenches

at Gadsden’s Wharf, where 100,000
Africans were imprisoned within brick walls
awaiting auction, death, or worse.
Where the dead were thrown into the water,

and the river clogged with corpses
has kept centuries of silence.
It is time to gather at the edge of the sea,
and toss wreaths into this watery grave.

And it is time to praise the judge
who cleared George Stinney’s name,
seventy years after the fact,
we honor him; we pray.

Here, where the Confederate flag still flies
beside the Statehouse, haunted by our past,
conflicted about the future; at the heart
of it, we are at war with ourselves

huddled together on this boat
handed down to us – stuck
at the last bend of a wide river
splintering near the sea.


The Press

  • For S.C.’s Poet Laureate, An Inauguration Poem Without An Inaugural Audience – NPR
  • In Defense of the Poet Laureate – Literary Hub
  • The poem, on Congressman Jim Clyburn’s website
  • Editorial cartoon in the Greenville News
  • Jim Clyburn reads Marjory Wentworth’s poem into Congressional Record – Post and Courier
  • Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate, cut out of Haley inauguration – Post and Courier
  • South Carolina poet laureate will not be part of Gov. Haley’s inauguration ceremony – Coladaily
  • Poem should have been read at Haley inauguration – Spartanburg Herald
  • SC’s official poet silenced at Haley inaugural – Styrk
  • Poet Laureate’s seed of truth deserves fertile soil – Colleton Press and Standard