Poet's Pick April 19
Paul Laurence Dunbar: "The Haunted Oak"
Selected by Cortney Lamar Charleston
National Poetry Month 2018

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Cortney Lamar Charleston's Poetry Month Pick, April 19, 2018

"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 say in the moonlight dim and weird
   A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
   I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
   And left him here alone.

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.

   

* Cortney Lamar Charleston Comments:
In the era of police shootings, what is it about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” that comforts me? The frame of the poem is simple (and traumatic) enough: in the opening stanza, a passerby comes under the shade of an oak tree with a peculiarly bare branch and queries it about its lack of foliage and the eerie energy that surrounds it, to which the oak earnestly replies by detailing the lynching of an innocent man from its limb. The poem has a straightforward narrative structure written in quatrains with alternating rhymes on the second and forth lines of each stanza; eventually though, with the eleventh stanza, there is a shift from description of the crime itself in the voice of the tree toward its contemplation of its own feelings; the oak tree is haunted by the use of its body in the taking of, as it testifies, a “guiltless victim’s” life.

In my mind―and more importantly, my heart―Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” is a wholly contemporary poem. The era of lynching, as it were, is not behind us here in America, the method has simply evolved: the gun does the dirty work that trees once did, the dashcam or smartphone immortalizing the spectacle for posterity as the Black body lays there, dying or dead, a non-threat extinguished. We talk so callously about it in this country, allowing ourselves to forget that the body is, in fact, or was, a person. But here, in this specific poem, is the tree to express sorrow over the murder that has transpired, because seemingly respectable men (the judge, the doctor, the minister and his son, as the oak tree informs us) refuse to do so. In fact, they participate, willingly, in the crime, per the account. It feels all too real to me, too recent, touches a nerve―I’ve seen supposedly good men go quiet in the face of injustice with regularity. To be honest, it makes me wonder what the gun has to say, if it is as remorseful and haunted as the oak tree of Dunbar’s poem is or if, in place of sorrow, there is rage.


About Cortney Lamar Charleston:
Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he is also the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRY, New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, River Styx and elsewhere. He currently serves as Poetry Editor at The Rumpus.


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