The River Sonnet
The audio footage for the spoken poetry of The River Sonnet was recorded in The Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception on West End Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee.
The River Sonnet begins with a quote from Charles Baudelaire's "Le Cygne" or "The Swan," which originally reads as "la forme d'une ville Change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d'un mortel." I have taken the liberty to translate this as "The form of a city Changes more quickly than a human heart." It is from here that The River Sonnet emerges. In his poem, Baudelaire reflects upon an occasion when he was crossing over a bridge in Paris and was struck by how quickly everyone around him had forgotten the essential soul of the city in the presence of its cosmetic changes.
"Le Cygne" begins with a second person appeal directed towards Andromache, who is the mythologized wife of Hector in Homer's Illiad. After watching her husband's body being dragged behind his murderer's chariot around Troy, witnessing her home ransacked and burned through Greek treachery and having her only son thrown from the high walls of the city, Andromache is taken as a sex slave by Achilles' son. Baudelaire speaks to her, not as a recent widow and bereft mother, but as a woman who is surrounded by people who view her as nothing more than a concubine. Only she remembers the nobility of her name and blood.
The River Sonnet too appeals to the lost figure of Andromache in both address and form. In many ways, Baudelaire's lament is the catalyst through which our initial efforts poured. The poem's title, "Le Cygne," comes from Baudelaire's recollected scene of the meat markets of the former Les Halles district in Paris' first arrondissement where he had once witnessed a swan that had escaped its pen and had made its way to a dried out wheel rut. In desperation, it calls out to the sky, anxious for rain to fill the rut with water so that it might swim and feel at peace in its natural form one last time before its inevitable slaughter.
It is, perhaps, a bit unfair to lump the people and places that line the Mississippi River with a comparison to a dead or ill fated Trojan woman or French swan. What we have tried to convey, with the images, sounds and poetry, however, is a representation of profound inner strength and dignity in the face of hardship and public indifference. In this, Andromache, Baudelaire's swan and the various residents of the Mississippi Valley are transformed from the figures of victims to the embodiment of perseverance and hope. This, in the end, is something we should all wish for. The face of the Mississippi River and its inhabitants is the face of America, and as it has proven to be for centuries, as goes the river, so go the rest of us.
The River Sonnet Transcript
Because last night the white pine forests that line the river where it begins grew down, into the earth, as much as away from it –
And because spring morning comes from the north to the delta in a wave that lifts the dark: unaired tires across the east bridge, loadless freight cars lighting the tracks at sundown, the common egret culling still the sandbar, set between the levy and a new dike, trenched from water too low to bear another run –
And because the moon moves away from us every year after harvest, until each red ember of light, burned deep into the ground, is fixed as a sharp prism of soil that buries itself beneath black folds, until it brings us close to the animal west we have lost –
Or because each way we find to complement our bodies in their lack begins with a song and ends with a reason to leave ourselves to marshland and to bayou, grown down beneath the asphalt and the loam –
And because there was, at first, a real mud before this mud –
And because all of the reasons we have are the wrong ones –
Because in the beginning, we are told, was the word, and the word, we hope, is good; although not, perhaps the way the Common Yellowthroat would lift itself from the white-skinned branch of the river birch seeded along the bog in short, wide spindles, swaddled into the taut shape buried things keep with time, until one spring, when the river comes up and stays full, and the small hooks and stones that keep underground things fixed wash loose and away, and the valley recedes to the grassed islands it will eventually become, then unbecome –
And because in the evening, your breath is soft the way a foal’s is, brushed and blanketed in its stall, then turned back to pasture to munch the last tufts of bromegrass and rye sprouted along the fencerow, drawn shallow but clean between each step and its next.
Because this is the only way we have with which to say we are sorry.
Andramache, I think of you. The wide mud
Stream that tears your country in two, poor
And emptying to its clearest ends, a mirror
To your long ache – this place, too, is your grief.
It comes to me as I watch a half-sunk
Refrigerator buoy with current
The color of spoiled milk clotted with
Industrial ash pass beneath the Ead’s Street
Bridge at dawn, just past the hill where my grandfather
Once helped to lay black bodies pulled from the river
After a grain barge tipped a ferry along
The east bank. Now, there is a concrete retaining
Wall with the sketched outline for a mural of Sacajawea
With child. Change, it seems, is on everyone’s
Mind. But there are things, you told me once,
We can never lose; the unkept secrets
We give to rain in spring, the sound of the earth
Transpirated to snow in the suburbs,
The ways children learn to lie, naturally,
Those things you wanted but could not imagine.
Still, not far north, the prairie grasses that took
Hundreds of millennia to decompose to soil
Will be impotent before we die. My home, too,
Is a bird in the thickets with wings drawn against
The wind. The old river is dead. I see this, as I saw
Last week, outside Memphis, in traffic lined up
Behind a semi, loaded with chicken crates,
That had careened across the median and tipped
Just before the bridge that runs over Crane Creek.
Most of the crates, which were eight inches tall,
Made of composite wood and wire and crammed
With beakless birds that had never flown,
Split open on the ground. The driver, dazed, fat and
Jake-legged, carried his broken right wrist in his left
Hand, and shuffled dying chickens, whose bodies popped
And writhed like sparks in a summer fire, with short,
Slow kicks into three piles for no reason.
The diesel engine still purring, the whistle of steam
Spouting from a fractured radiator, a ribbon of blood
And feather duff spilling through the gutters
On the bridge into the dry creekbed below.
My home, too, is a thicket filled with bird
Wings drawn against the wind.
These are the things that matter –
Three horses on the hillcrest, heads bowed to pasture,
tails swatting slow as morning rain, in rhythm.
Blue and yellow finches darting from the brush
lining the road that runs from town past the old
white-slat Lutheran church and cemetery,
across the south Clark county line, over
the iron bridge that gathers the ridgeline and empties,
a quarter mile from the house where the four
pretty girls lived, into loose gravel and mud
on the other side of the levy. Four daughters
with hair the color of wheat pennies
and eyes like the belly of an ash leaf grown near
the ground, who did not come to town for school,
and who had no names anybody knew,
and who grew up and moved away and left
back nothing but a faint longing and a barn plank
swing hung from the front yard poplar.
Heat lightning in the north country, come early.
Wild iris and foxglove grown thick along the creek
that runs through the east gulley in spring.
The butter-light in the upstairs bedroom
window, after midnight, in the old white
house on the corner of Lincoln and Main.
The sound my son makes, preening, as he presses his face
against Ann’s breast and drinks in the early morning
gray of his small bedroom.
The way it took you almost a year to remember the street
names in the new city where you lived, for the first time away
from your only home, walking the same half remembered
circuits through the blocks surrounding your single room
every morning. Lost in a way only those who have come
from the earth can feel. Until, one day in August,
while talking to a strange man on the sidewalk, you heard
yourself say something about the next corner being yours,
and you felt, immediately as if something had been
pulled loose and broken, but were unsure about who,
exactly, had lied and who had been lied to.
First, you have to cut something deep enough to make it count.
Then you have to count it –
blood on oil slicks in the parking lot
at dusk, the tight helix of a hidden life unspun,
the soft blue shape moonlight makes under ice –
First you find the bone, the only one
that holds the body together.
Next, unconstellate the scales of something
we believe did not feel it felt.
After, forget what you have forgotten.
First, you must decide what you are waiting for.
First, you have to wait.
After midnight the moon rises full again
in the same place it always does in June,
split between the branches of the black
walnut in the north corner of the back yard.
There is one road that leads home
from here, and a different one
that can bring you back once you have left.
For two days, I have watched you, without
your knowing, furrow trenches and plant
the good things we will eat . Your hands, spun
from sunlight and soil, opening the day to what
we keep within the closed secret of our silent bodies.
If the river is supposed to be the Father of Waters,
you said to me once after seeing the phrase
inscribed on a statue in the Hennepin
county court house, below the massive
figure of a bearded white man sitting
on eddies, the backs of dragons
and a steam wheel,
then the mother is everything around it.
The lines of your face smoothed still
in a way neither defiant nor delivered,
the way you looked when they told you
your father was sick and wouldn’t be
coming home. Or the time we hit
a yearling doe south of town
and watched it drag itself
into the roadside thickets
with two broken legs. Three
trucks heading north turned
around, lined the shoulder of
the highway, each with a man
who claimed to have seen us first.
Men who stood back in boots
and jackets, waiting for the tow
before beginning the dark
and necessary division.
Three days of rain now and the sugar
maple in the pasture has begun
to take notice. Three days
of rain and the cigarette
butts, ATM receipts,
business cards of
showgirls who twist
their ways across
the river fill the storm
drain grates on every
corner of The
Tonight, you come to me
the way any forgotten thing
comes to something else
incapable of remembering.
Three days and the street-
lights below the hill
shed the stain of the sand
crane in January and diesel
smoke all year.
But listen, only the animal knows animal ways.
If we are to find the nature in our lost past,
who do we turn to – how do we go about becoming?
You have to learn how to wait, you used to tell me at the start
of each spring when the daffodil shoots brake through the mulch
and landscape netting along the bank parking lot on
Jefferson. You have to want to know how to wait.
And in tonight’s blue pitch, I wait
in a country that does not need us.
And again here tonight, the soft comfort
of your body spreading across my skin like clover
from the south field in morning. Your mouth,
a thrush song of magnolia blooms and sweet
blue nettle. Your sadness hung full in the dark
cage bones become, always,
These are the things that matter –
The way the wind can lift the water from the ground when it wants to.
The way an old white Buick, stopped where Washington meets Columbia at State, idles its brake lights thick in the predawn echo of an empty city. Nothing else moving, except a short, strung-out black man, wearing an oversized coat, who saunters back and forth between two dark houses, crossing into and out of the diluted gold arch of the streetlamp by the empty lot across the street. His breath funneling clouds into the light when he steps into the ring, then away until he is gone, lost in the darkness like the gateway shine of downtown across the river from here dims against the red beacon lights at the top of the smokestacks on the Big River Zinc and Monsanto plants that line this side of the river, like the sound of the Buick’s deep throat running, and the brake lights and the smoke, gone to rising.
Split asphalt and tar on the crown.
Mud Island under spring thaw when it shouldn’t be.
The thin space between the doors of the shed where a stranger keeps his lawnmower and the tools his father left that he does not know how to use, where a mother raccoon detaches her spine to teach her kits to meld into a lit-night world that is theirs now as much as it is ours.
Cancer welling in the spring lot.
Four dead hoot owls by the crick behind the barn.
Fresh cider when the time’s right.
Cold moonlight poured on hemlock boughs beside the cemetery on the ridge.
The names we can no longer read.
The things we read but no longer write.
First, you have to bury something deep between the bowels.
Then you have to carry it for a long time.
First, you must find a name that makes it yours
and learn to call it something else instead.
You have to change yourself in ways not possible.
Lose the things that keep you safe to save the thing
that makes you whole,
no sleep for the first years,
unknit clothes found buried
in the closet, too late,
one long road, spread strait
across the bottoms with no bend,
disappearing at a point, in haze,
below the horizon.
You have to find a way to unstitch the letters of dark words among the briars,
and craft a braid that ties them into kinder songs with time.
First, find a way to trace the wind that holds the stars in tune and carries them to dusk.
You must understand this thing you’ve grown will also someday end.
First you find that all things, in their ways, are gone already.
Please don’t touch me, you said once in the darkness of our room. And I laid back against the hard thrum of chorus frogs in the cattle pond kept beneath the hill. The rain, like round-rolled creek stones, scattered across the roof in waves. The neighborhood aglow in the light of flat-panel television screens, and you said it again, don’t touch me, into the sheets, under your breath.
Outside, wood toads filled the valley with spring and leapt against the headlights of passenger cars on the highway. The tidal shelf of the moon held our shadow on its edge. Inside, the quiet pockets of our lives etched a dark gospel of life lived forever without.
These are the things that matter –
The dredge boat in water below the city line where teenagers come to smoke and wait.
The same place where a man sits, everyday, under a row of crepe myrtles in the park, wearing a red hat and blue tee-shirt, reading an old book he found outside a church on Upper-Broad.
The ways wild iris keep summer closed to silence.
A door unlocked without a key.
There is a way to show kindness that rains beneath the skin but settles in the blue light our breath becomes when leaving after dawn.
The thing that suffocates in nets, braided by a lonely man, in a lonely place.
The way he learned to tie them through practice.
The one way we are all, always, alone.
Your hands moving beneath the sheets of your childhood bed, folding each corner to its rightness.
Your name spelled soft as dandelion duff and hay dust, spun in the loft.
Your tongue curled dark as the rim of the lakeshore, your hips flushed thick as a mason full of honey at high tide.
These are the things we do to hurt one another.
These are the songs we hang to keep us safe.
This is the way to separate the world from the earth and let one go.
This is the reason you never got to say goodbye.
First you have to pull the land from the ground
then you have to make it sing.
You have to find the word within the stone
and learn to keep it
You must give time to the sun.
First you have to bring the body back,
shave the seed from the stalk,
register the stars to their sin.
First, you have to understand forgiveness.
First, you will resurrect the past.
My love, the world is disappearing. Foreclosure signs by the roadway, scattered seed left strewn about the yard, the first steeple built here sunk to briar, antiqued names kept as totem at the ballots, memories charted in the blood.
South of here, where poor folk tread water to death in their attics and suffocated against the storm surge, news crews struggled to shape a story that kept us above our failings. Each new year sheathed in an orchard light of stars. In this too, there is change.
Again I think of you, Andramache, and of the dark way not even your loss could ever be your own – your country burned, Scamandrius thrown from the city gates, your tears washing through the valley, the hard silence of your widowhood spindled around its fallow core. Your plight, lost in the sameness of everyone else’s. And I think of the shipwrecked, of the immigrant, the mother standing dazed in bright aisles calculating the too small expansion of milk against bread, the scarlet ibis, hatching her young in the shallow bowl of an ashheap kept in chainlink outside the refinery.
Down the street, the Teflon factory calls its workers home with a siren– two short blast then one long which draws into what is not silence but is not as full as sound.
This morning, your hair circles in the light that rings the city. The coal smoke that lifts below the east lake shoals the plain between your eyes to the spillway. The layered hum of your leaving, pulling amber across the prairie.
In the end you show me love,
caught deep in the way I live against you –
the snowy egret nesting with song, the quiet
speech of the brown pelican disappearing,
all your lapping lost to a world of deeper cares,
And if I lift from here–
If I unfold myself from the fiddle-head
of the north country or the poplar sapling
of the south into your becoming – what then?
All my heart has left my bones folded cruel
and guiltless as your loosed silt, born beneath
a sun that will come again –
willow reads dried on the sea wall, a sole tern
nesting the marsh, swollen mussels turning the flood
road into something different, but familiar.
You have your place among the soundful.
I keep mine against the dead.
The squall comes in and goes out, gray plumes
pillering the sky between the marsh islands the river
becomes before it ends. I have found you where
all things come to a close and where they begin.
But this is not true. I have not found you or anything
here. Listen, none of this really matters. The wind comes
in the spring and stays through the spring. The water rises
or it doesn’t. Nothing means anything without us.
Still, this is not the first time you have been here.
A man on the street is saying that it’s really women
who run the world, although he uses a different word
for them and whether or not this is true,
it’s certainly women who suffer it.
We grow the natural way, but it is exactly this that keeps us
from growing. We carry the thing that makes us animal,
but keeps us from it, which makes this place our home
while killing it. So what should we do – The fountain flows
the ducks to forgetting, the birds sing the trolley far past close,
my hands shake the gravel from the drive in a way not done
since someone who lived here once came home from a war
he did not start or understand, and that no one won.
This is what we have lost, and what keeps us up at night –
the ability to discern the difference between living and being alive.
So you give yourself over to the voice of another name,
an older one. One that does not listen when you call
or answer when you cry. One where hollow pitch of a flat
road disappears at the horizon. Where the sound of water moving
through stone underground makes sense not to question.
Tonight, after midnight, I slip my kayak into the reservoir near my house under a full moon to steal a moment from my neighbor’s lives as they sleep. Small lights glow within the hill while the water rises against a dam that keeps water, for a while, another tributary that carries our great river to the gulf.
And I think of the dozens of ash colored caterpillars that crawled, early this morning, across the screens in my son’s nursery windows. Da Da, he said, slapping at each with an open palm, knocking them two stories to the ground until I closed the glass partition to keep them safe. Da Da, he said, smearing his fingerprints against the translucent glass. Autumn is coming, and within it, the whole year keeps its course.
The mallards and geese, who are kept here year round to entertain the patrons of the marina bar and eat the food scraps thrown into the gasoline slicks that rainbow the water’s surface, collect around me and dive, seamlessly, for mussels and insects buried in clay.
In water, the old ways shimmer in waves that carry us both away from and towards the places we still need to believe in. At home, only you remain the past. No one remembers. For now, though, it is enough.
A cool breeze sweeps the valley. The round moon shrinks, with distance, into its company of stars. The world, we somehow remember, can be immeasurably good, though kept from us in ways not expected- the soapstone shimmer of night reflected along the shore, sleek birds disappearing under darkness, the sound we hear echoed when something wild breaks back above the skin.
This is how you will know I loved you – of all the things I found here, there are some I left unnamed.