Featured Poem II • January 2016
Moving the Earth
February 7, 1812 The farmers of New Madrid felt the first shudder of Manifest Destiny like Jesus crashing to earth, like fierce fists striking the iron gates of heaven. It was the land, this time, that rebelled: tremors swept through a million square miles, rang church bells in Boston, cast a new bend in the Mississippi and sent those same floodwaters fleeing backwards, into a hump some twenty feet high that, when it collapsed, leveled acres on acres of cottonwoods, barely in bud. All things man-made failed, said witnesses. Yet when the first sulfur cloud rose, when the sun itself dimmed, when women who swooned were never revived, where was Jesus? Some saw him wading hip-deep in debris, his lily white robes soaking up gray sediment, as he directed the water’s retrograde path with an outstretched finger. Others said no, that day, Jesus towered over the rebel Mississippi. He sprouted from topsoil—green as new wheat—and grew, golden, till his head breached the barrier of stench and vapor till he could see past the Smokies, the Rockies, past forests and deserts, to each indistinct shore. His holy palm compressed the town of New Madrid and he watched the land breathe—stretch, ripple, contract, a migration and a return pulsing while frantic fists rocked the wrought-iron gates of heaven.
Melissa Frederick is a writer and freelance medical editor from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Mid-American Review, Helen: A Literary Magazine, Moon City Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House and is forthcoming in matchbook and The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.
About her poem, she wrote, “I first heard about ‘the biggest earthquake in U.S. history’ from a workshop instructor in the late 1990s. I think what sparked my interest was the idea not only of a hidden fault line in the middle of North America but also of a tremor in Missouri ringing church bells in Boston. Initially, I wrote a draft of ‘Moving the Earth’ that made kind of a simplistic statement on ‘blind faith.’ That version got a lot of rejections. Later, I started doing a little research and found some amazing eyewitness descriptions of the event. When I went to revise the piece, I was more drawn to the surreality of the whole thing, and the question of interpretation—how do you understand the physical world when the land all around you is rocking like an ocean? That’s when Jesus popped up as a character—like a Greek titan, detached from human suffering even though people want to see him as a divine leader.”
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