On a breezy recent October day, two Bates colleagues, professor Ian Khara Ellasante and multimedia producer Theophil Syslo, headed to the Androscoggin River in nearby Greene.

There, they worked on a video project, a reading of Ellasante’s award-winning poem that evokes love for a grandfather, the ebb and flow of water, and the passage of “seasons for healing and tempering like flood following drought following flood.” 

The poem, titled “grandfather: a dialect of water,” earned Ellasante, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies, first prize in a poetry-writing contest sponsored by the literary magazine New Millennium Writings.

Ian Ellasante, new to the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, is a poet as well as a scholar and teacher. (Theophil Syslo/Bates College)
Ian Khara Ellasante is an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies. (Theophil Syslo/Bates College)

Described by Alexis Williams, editor-in-chief of New Millennium Writings, as a “continuing ripple and flow of love and reverence,” the poem was inspired by Ellasante’s paternal grandfather, a man who “wept river water when he said his prayers” and who:

was the colors of the earth
who was all of its crimson clay    blues and grey

Ellasante describes their late grandfather as “the epitome of integrity and tenderness, of grace, strength, and compassion.” 

Though Ellasante’s grandfather died several years ago, they feel that “our conversations have continued in earnest as I consider all that he gave me. Maybe this is the way of grandfathers like him: to gift us with the best of themselves and write it permanently onto our hearts, to grow us and shape us like water.”

Video by Theophil Syslo/Bates College

grandfather: a dialect of water

i had one who fished rivers

through the night

who wept river water

when he said his prayers

my hand on his big knuckled heart

he would say    cry with me

this is baptism: walk with me     he would say

immerse your heart       not your head

i had one who was the colors of the earth

who was all of its crimson clay    blues and grey

this is Mississippi River mud     he would say

each color in its turn     turning the earth

and earth’s engine     churning

days and years     into the color of his hair

and into the deep shade of earth’s wet bridges

when his lost hair began to return

pray with me    he would say

                    grandchildren   i pray for you everyday

long of days grandfather

i want to know

the water memory loosening

a heavy tether in your voice

i had one who grew his hair long and thick

as wavy as a seaport   rolling down his back

who had a story about the flood

that saved him and killed him

both in the same night

grandfather who knows the ways of water

and the ways of beauty     i want to know

how do you keep a river

rising and surging like this

and why does it overflow you in these tears

come and see me     he would say

watch the rain   whisper it down from the clouds

let the thunder soften you              toward quiet

sit with me     he would say

grandfather of open spaces and tall trees

long of memory

long of lung

long of days     sunlit and full of rain

how should i plant this seed   i want to know

put it in the dirt and it will grow   he would say

and keep it there   until something becomes

                                                                 something more

i want to know     grandfather

why are we unbraiding

toward the water’s edge

               and wait please

i have something more to say

i had one who rose   at times with the haste

of a flood rising      who at others lingered

like the stretch and stillness of a long drought

                         speak the ways of water to me     grandfather

                         speak seasons  for healing and tempering

                         like flood following drought    following flood

i had one who knew balance and reasons

for unbalance       of seeds in seasons

      of reaping and then returning        and then

i had one who grew quiet

and waited in the flickering light

grandfather   sit with me

                                          tell me

i want to know    what is over there to see

let me look at you    he would say

river banks are not meant to hold

                                        cry with me   walk with me