25 July 2023

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Wissahickon Creek is a tributary of the Schuylkill River, flowing through the Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties of Pennsylvania. For Edgar Allen Poe, writing in the middle of the 19th Century, it was a river. Maybe it was, before development arrived, villages became townships, townships became cities and cities were turned into grand metropoles. In Poe’s time the name was Wissahiccon, but he may have misspelt.

Poe, astounded by the beauty, described it thus: ‘…Now the Wissahiccon is of so remarkable a loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard, and the common topic of every tongue.’

The quote is from an article that is also known as ‘The Elk,’ because it was essentially a ‘plate piece’ or a work written specifically to accompany an engraving, in this instance one by John Gadsby Chapman depicting an elk.

Why England, though? Why would it have been different had the Wissahickon flowed through that country? Was it that the England of that time lacked idyllic landscapes replete with river, elk and greenery?

Weren’t there enough bards in the America of Poe’s time to theme the Wissahickon, apart from Poe himself (the essay is certainly lyrical) and Fanny Kemble who wrote ‘To the Wissahiccon’ in 1832? Was it some kind of post-colonial deference, considering that less than a century had passed since independence was declared?

‘A common topic of every tongue,’ in England, but why not in Poe’s America? Did not his fellow citizens appreciate the beauty of the landscape enough? Could they not?

The age of industry had arrived. The areas Poe wrote about would bear witness to the arrival of the automobile and the banning of the same which led to the most popular trail coming to be known as ‘Forbidden Drive.’ Perhaps, just as in England, there was anxiety over what might have at that time appeared to be the inevitable replacement of all things naturally beautiful with all things unnaturally mechanical.

Wissahickon didn’t remain the same. And yet, there’s enough of it to inspire poetry. This time, in the third decade of the 21st Century, there’s no reference to England, no post-colonial angst (not least of all because the United States of America has inherited or wrested that pernicious mantle?), no veiled lamentation over the lack of validation.  

Joyce Hida, in a curious twist where she takes issue with the demand for a poem (probably about Wissahickon) in, paradoxically, a poem that denies itself and affirms that which requires not (as she points out) poetic affirmation.

Untitled and logically so, her note of objection is published in www.philadelphiastories.org:

I will not make a poem of this. Wissahickon will remain
imperially ours, not rendered impossible by a poet’s word.
And yet, there is something to be said for the impossible break

in the river. For the rock-strewn crossing that fades halfway, as if to say
there is no need for an end. For the way stones shoulder
the age of sentinel cliffs, and sap slows the progression of ants.

We spoke about it each morning, sliding down hillsides in too smooth
soles. Poems make a memory, history and I am keeping Wissahickon
for us.  Besides, the woods are not metaphorically
beautiful — they burn in crimson and ochres and reject
asylum to fantasy. And still you are

insisting on the poem, as if we haven’t thought
to make love by the Devil’s Pool, as if our roots

don’t share soil with the ferns.

Joyce loves Philadelphia, according to the author-note following the poem. She’s probably a native of this city. I am a visitor. I don’t share roots, not with ferns, not with Joyce Hida nor with Edgar Allen Poe. We are all citizens in the Republic of Poetry, maybe, and, in that shared citizenship, can still walk through these woods, gaze upon a river, flip the decades several times over and, as I did this morning, let the Wissahickon tell its stories at its own pace and its native language and actually obtain a trace of that salience known so intimately to Joyce Hida and Edgar Allen Poe. Not imperially mine, no. Not colonially conceded either.
['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road