Poet's Pick April 12
Paul Laurence Dunbar: "The Haunted Oak"
Selected by Jake Adam York
National Poetry Month 2012

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Jake Adam York's Poetry Month Pick, April 12, 2012

"The Haunted Oak"
by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
   Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
   Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
   And sap ran free in my veins,
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
   A guiltless victim's pains.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
   And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
   And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
   And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
   And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
   Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
   What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
   "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
   And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
   With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
   And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
   They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
   And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
   And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
   As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
   And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
   Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
   'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
   The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
   And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
   The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
   On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
   From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
   And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
   In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
   And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
   On the trunk of a haunted tree.

* Jake Adam York Comments:

When I was five, my family moved into the country—or to be more accurate, the woods—onto land my great-grandmother gave my parents. Our house was wedged between the pines which seemed to shake when my mother sang  “Rockabye Baby” to my younger brother or when she told me to watch out for panthers in the woods or the escaped murderer who used to live down the road. I couldn’t contain myself. Neither could the trees.

The ballads I’d later learn through country music seemed to confront the same difficulty, trying to carry more than their lungs could hold. The sweet melody of a murder ballad trying to forget, but ultimately shivered by, the horror of the story underneath.

These forms tell, too, the story of story, of what happens to a good tale: we settle down inside it briefly, and it settles down in us for years to come.

This is one of the things I admire about Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak.” On one hand, the poem tells the story of all good poems, called into being, asked to explain itself, then approaching its answer, like us, by reaching into the past only to lose track of time, to violate time’s order by entering its concern so fully,  the story becomes the moment into which all time folds. We wake from this, to move toward the end of the poem, but the story breathes its breath into us at the door, so we carry it with us, retelling it, re-breathing its breath. If it fills us fully, we become monuments to the idea the story was made to hold.

At the same time, this poem creates a particular and very necessary monument. It’s the earliest poem I know about a lynching. Written in 1899 or 1900, it’s a creature of the decade in which Ida B. Wells wrote On Lynchings and the decade in which the Tuskeegee Institute began tracking lynching in the South.

I once heard the jazz musician Milt Hinton describe the practice—once used in around Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he grew up—of cutting down a hanging tree and painting the stump red, so nothing would grow from it again. It was a way of taking from the lynch mob a proven tool, but it also created a monument to the hanged, a silent place in the woods or along the riverbanks, a place in which a name might be said in memory, in which a prayer might be raised, where the loss might be felt, impressed into the mind of any passer, carried on.

About Jake Adam York:
Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems—including A Murmuration of Starlings (2008) and Persons Unknown (2010), published by Southern Illinois University Press in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. An associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, York co-edits Copper Nickel. He is a 2011-2012 Visiting Faculty Fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University.

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