CROSSING THE NICKEL BRIDGE
Big old dollar, the old toll taker would say, making change.
Twenty years I’ve crossed his bridge. He’s been gone five.
Sometimes, at this merge lane of my breaking days, I’ll
picture him across the span of it, leaning to wave me in,
his tucked flag of a moustache a trim flourish. Eyes behind
the pebble lenses as kindly as ever; if blurrier with distance.
This morning, the river’s like a vista from a movie: light
coming in low through gaps it’s carved between the trees,
to wallop off rocks and water, kicking up mists in slumped
. Big old dollar, and hand you a boiled sweet —
for a few of his last years, until the lawyers put a stop to it.
And always with the same inflection, as if it were a song
he’d concocted, with its tune to keep to, rueful and jocular;
and then as envoi, a crinkle of hard candy would drop into
your palm with your three quarters, like a blessing.
This April day, what moment, where, might match our
mist-mossed river, its shimmers and whorls of shroud —
river rocks rising from them like mysterious swimmers?
This sun idling between the downtown silhouettes: god
of the unspent morning, granting us its dollops of gold time?
Big old dollar,
until one day I answered, inverting the tune:
Not so big any more, is it? At which he chuckled; and when
I crossed back had appended it, call and response-style:
Big old dollar! Not so big any more, is it?
Setting my addendum in the place of the banned candy —
as if to bless the span and lessening of his life and mine;
with a ritual dolorousness as rich as sugar. Big old dollar,
and he’d hand us our 90 cents, or our 80, or three quarters,
or less, as the toll rose again. The nickel cost lapsed who
knows when, but like most folks I still say the Nickel Bridge.
Land outside time, where each crossing some of us get lost.
2016 Edgar Allan Poe Memorial winner
Derek Kannemeyer, on “Crossing The Nickel Bridge”:
I‘m a slow finisher of poems, and “Crossing the Nickel Bridge” goes back ten years before this 2016 version. There’s very little invention to the piece; the speaker is me, the river is the James, and for almost three decades, on my daily crossing to my teaching job and back, I lost myself in the lightening of spirits, ever wearier, that these lines work to evoke. I’d like to thank the Richmond a cappella group Impromptu for inviting me to read at a 2006 concert, and for requesting “a poem about rivers”; without them, and without that marvelous old toll taker, the routine and ritual wonder of my river crossings may never have made it into a poem.