River Bend drawing by Ardath Garfield
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Virtual Gallery Page

The Library invites contributions of creative work by the residents of Orange for publication to this web page. Contact Library Director, Walt Owens, at 978.544.2495 to schedule your "Virtual Gallery Exhibit."

We are pleased to present as our first offering to this virtual gallery, a poem written by Robert Collén, a trustee of the Library from 1962 through the spring of 2004.

Commentary by the Author

by Robert Collén

"A hardscrabble New England mill town with decaying factory buildings."
That is one way to describe it, not original,
But the newspaper reporter was in a hurry, passing through,
And wanted a quick impression to hook the reader's attention
And to show solidarity with the working poor.
Who knows? The frisson of recognition might happen.
Satisfied that he had caught the spirit of the place,
If nothing else, he moved on to a more important story.

What he did not see was the river, the way it sweeps into town
With its burden of sky, clouds, sun, moon, stars, birch trees,
Factory buildings, fire station, and neon Michelob sign,
Disappears under the bridge, emerges again,
Gathered and concentrated as it approaches the dam,
Where years later the observer can hear the thunder of roiled water.
The river, its power undiminished, flows through dreams, daydreams,
And memories until it finds its way to the ultimate sea.

For as long as I can remember I have stopped to look at birch trees
Growing along the river above and below the dam.
When I was young and romantic, I thought of these trees
As adolescent girls, pursued by an insatiable god,
Who, in the moment of ravishment, changed them
Into ecstatic but rooted forms, and who, deathless and ageless,
Ardently moves among them on summer afternoons.
Now that I am old and romantic, I summon from the past
The memory of my youthful extravagance and exult in
The excessive glory of white birch trees along the river.

Some say the Scotch-Irish settled this town, but I say
Whoever came here looked back to the ancient Greeks
And planted Doric columns in front of the big houses
On West River Street, under the portico of the great mansion,
In the recessed entrance to the library, and on porches of lesser houses
On almost every side street to defy the encroaching formlessness,
To resist the temptation to sprawl, to give in, and to forget.
In a magnanimous gesture, a doctor imported marble from Italy
And mounted Ionic columns, entablature, and pediment
Over the entrance to his white two-story frame house
In honor of Asclepius, son of Apollo, god of healing.

Everywhere there is evidence the town remembers her soldiers.
In Central Cemetery, a column rises to those who fell
At Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.
On the common, close to the river, the bronze figures of a soldier
And schoolboy commemorate the War to End All Wars.
The motto on the base of the monument reads:
Streets and crossroads bear the names of the eleven
Young men who did not return.
On the honor roll in the front of the library,
The names of men and women appear alphabetically
Under World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Buildings in the center of town look toward the river,
As if in expectation of some arrival, as if Cleopatra’s barge might heave
Into view, purple sails unfurled, to the sound of flutes and drums,
Or, as if out of the Orient, a new light might come to restore
To its original state all that has been lost, worn out, and violated.
Standing on the bridge at dawn and facing east,
As the wind shifts and slides over the dark water,
I have often imagined it is June 1914, that the world has not taken
The road to the slaughterhouse of the Somme and Verdun,
And that fire and sword, to use outmoded symbols,
Have not consumed and wasted the blood and treasure of nations.
These are the tears in things.
The barge, we know, will not come, and the past cannot be undone.
The slow work of decay goes on, dry rot gnaws the sills, paint peels,
And broken windows, vandal’s havoc, get boarded up.

What is seen sees. The river looks up at us, takes in who we are,
What we do, and, in flowing on, remains what it has always been:
Barrier, frontier, passage, provider of power, dreamer’s mirror.
To cross the bridge two, four, or six times a day is to reenact
The great migrations, for rivers stand between today and tomorrow,
Who we are and what we will become. That we are ignorant
Of what we do changes nothing. We, who are never the same,
Cannot cross the same bridge twice. Everything flows over and under
The bridge, and the river ceaselessly whispers its secret name.

Walt Whitman, how often have I wished that you could walk with me,
That we would stroll together on South Main Street toward the river,
That it would be July or August, that men in work clothes
And women in summer dresses would wave to us, that we would come
To the bridge at sunset and stand, looking west beyond the dam,
Where water tumbles over rocks, turns white, and shimmers,
That the brick factory buildings would flaunt their fantastic shades of red,
That you would sing to me in the voice of friend and guide,
“Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
“Frolic on, crested and scallop-edged waves!
“Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me,
or the men and women generations after me!”
And that you and I, Walt Whitman, would stand alone
On the bridge and wait for night to come.

The four-square Savings Bank faces south and waits for the sun,
An architect’s blind tribute to Picasso, Braque, and Mondrian.
I have seen the midday sun transform this cube into a burst of gold
So intense that I have had to shield my eyes from its reflected fire.
Interest and credit! What are these compared to a moment in the sun?
Do not be concerned about encouraging the useful, Goethe said,
The useful encourages itself. Encourage beauty, even if it does not endure.
I wish I had the skill of an old Flemish master to paint
The young woman who, on a sultry summer afternoon, leaned against
The public drinking fountain while she waited for the water to run cold.
Twenty centuries of Western art concentrated in her stance
And vanished when she walked away.

Sometimes at night I wake to the throbbing of a freight train
As it works up the long grade and sounds its whistle at Wendell Depot.
The tracks parallel the river, the white water, and wide reaches
Where the windless surface is broken only by a snag
Or the prow of a sandbar. And sometimes in that state between
Waking and sleep, long after the train has passed through town,
And the tunnel has filled with the darkest part of night,
I become the river, and what I know in the depths
Are words, images, and metaphors borne on the surface,
Things that are and that are not, the moon and Cleopatra’s barge,
The birch trees and the shape-changing god, time and nothing.
It is then that I return to the river what the river has given to me.
The next morning I drive to work across the bridge,
Over the river, past red brick factory buildings
And the peace monument, and through the center of town.

The lines quoted in Stanza 8 are from Walt Whitmanís poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, as published in the final edition of his book Leaves of Grass (Philadelphia, 1891-1892).

© 1993, 1994 by Robert Collén. Revised 1994. Revised 2003. All rights reserved. Haleyís (P. O. Box 248, Athol, MA 01331) has published a tenth anniversary edition of this poem.



The poem, “The Town and the River,” grew out of a slideshow I had been presenting to groups in Orange and Athol in the early 1990s. The photographs and commentary focused primarily on the Millers River as the organizing feature of the landscape, and secondarily on the architecture and layout of the town.

A few years later, as I was reviewing the notes, I found myself writing a poem about the town and the river that flows through the center. After innumerable drafts, I read it to Marcia Gagliardi, who immediately suggested that Haleys publish it as a booklet.

Not long after the poem was published, my good friend and next-door neighbor, Ralph Henley, came to the house, holding a large painting he called “Millers River Sunrise.” Cynthia Henley included the painting and the poem in the May 16, 2010 exhibit of her father’s work. Whenever I look at it, I think of Robert Frost’s lines from his poem, “A Tuft of Flowers”:
‘Men work together, I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.'

Haleys published a tenth anniversary edition in 2003. Anne Williamson, who was then Wheeler Memorial Library Director, put this version on-line in the library’s virtual gallery. The current Library Director, Walt Owens, permanently maintains the poem on the site.

In the poem, I mythologize my Nordic passion for birch trees and my fascination with the Millers River. Other themes deal with classical influences on the architecture of the town, the devastating consequences of the Great War (1914-1919) with which we are still living, my homage to Walt Whitman, and the railroad as a symbol of our restlessness and our longing to return home.

Like Henry David Thoreau, “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”

Robert Collén, July 10, 2010

Virtual Gallery Archives

Now Showing

Summer 2006 Music by Carolyn Brown Senier

Winter 2005 "Me Old Mum" by Candace Curran

Winter 2004
Artwork by young children

April & May 2004
Robert Collén
The Town and the River poem
and Ardath Garfield's
River Bend
line drawing