The Ever-Arriving River
How do we know we have arrived?
No gate blows open, no trumpet swings wide
Giving boogie-oogie oogie-boogie to the countryside.
Our horses must feed on grass, or perish.
So, too, our souls. Having gone down the long defiles
All night, in a night that is not sure of ending,
Our souls paw their bellies and howl.
Even a ghost craves ghostly sustenance.
Have we arrived then, when midnight creaks
And starved souls howl at the wolvish moon?
Or must we still, in our hunger, kneel and pray?
Must a glittering track shiver in the sleepy pines
For the last mile shimmied on our knees?
Bend at that track, and drink with tragic hands,
With hands encased in silver to their wrists.
Drink and drink; drink deep, O traveler--
Tomorrow we must find this river again.
The themes of this poem can be said to be paradise, pain, and persistence.
The first line of the poem immediately creates the context and then throws it into question.
How do we know we have arrived?
In the title it is the river that is arriving. In the first line the question is about our arriving. There is some confusion between whether it is the river arriving or us who are arriving. What is the relationship between these two arrivals?
What does arriving mean anyway? If the river is ever-arriving how do we know we’ve ever gotten anywhere? If we don’t know that we’ve arrived somewhere what is the problem that creates? These are the sorts of questions that are created by the tension between the title and the first line of the poem.
The reader and the narrator of the poem both seek reassurance on this point. The second stanza begins with a frustration of that seeking reassurance. Traditional signs of arrival, signs of having completed your journey, are denied the speaker and the reader both. “No gate blows open.”
“No trumpet swings wide,” the horn of Gabriel, the official welcoming at the gates of heaven, is absent from the countryside. There is no sound of welcome available to the traveler. Indeed the silence seems to mock the reader and the seeker. The “oogie-boogie” of 1940s swing music is unavailable to the traveler, and hides another pun in the poem only a footnote can provide.
This lack of welcome, this lack of acknowledgment, this lack of arrival, then create an intolerable tension in the poem. We are not only mocked, we are in peril. “Our horses must feed on grass, or perish.” The horses, representative of purposeful onward motion, must find some sustenance or die. Our sense of arrival is frustrated. We must seek a way to go forward even one more step in this unwelcoming countryside. The analogy to the spiritual context is made explicit in the first half of the next line. Our souls are directly compared to the horses which carry us onward. The long night of the soul is vividly evoked as “the long defiles / all night.”
The spiritual context of the seeking, the lust for Paradise, is underlined in the last line of the stanza “even a ghost craves ghostly sustenance.” So here we are. We are suffering, we are seeking. When will we arrive at this fabled “ever-arriving” river? The ever-arriving nature of the river is reminiscent of Heraclitus’s observation that one may never step into the same river twice. Will the river be the place of our renewal, our welcoming? Is it truly to be the destination that we are seeking?
The hope is set up in the poem that indeed the river will be the paradise our souls are craving. But on what sustenance Olar soul survive in the meantime? Is our desire for paradise itself the sustenance we seek? The third stanza asks these very questions. The conditions of “arrival” are mixed up with the conditions of seeking, the “starved” nature of the spiritual quest is itself considered a sign of arriving someplace. Our hunger for spiritual fulfillment has lifted us out of the ordinary daily context of our lives. We’re no longer simply mortal. We are mortal and spiritual creatures, locked into a quest. This seems a bit medieval and some ways. Like Parsifal with his vision of the Grail, we are beset with a vision of an overflowing, ever-arriving river. Our thirst is great in the darkness of our long spiritual night.
But mere spiritual hunger, mere spiritual seeking, are not enough to fulfill the requirements of arrival. We must still “in our hunger, Neal and pray.” To wish for spiritual fulfillment to seek the river is not enough. We must, even without the grass that are horses require, even without finding anything yet, we must “kneel and pray.” We must, even in the midst of our suffering, be grateful. But this is jumping the gun (or the gate) a bit here. First the poet ratchets up the tension of the seeker’s dilemma a few more notches. The pervasive use of the the communal perspective, “our horses,” “our souls,” draws the reader into alignment with the speaker’s quest. It is not dissimilar to the old preacher’s trick of addressing his disparate congregation confidently as a single community, a united entity, small before the greatness of The Lord.
In the desperation and tension created by the prolonged absence of paradise or the goal to which the traveler is headed, a vision of this final destination appears. In the middle of the woods, in the middle of the countryside a “glittering track” appears uncertainly in the moonlight. Is this the long-awaited “ever-arriving river”? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But our approach to it (whether it is real or imagined only among the “sleepy pines”) must be prayerfully attempted; we must move forward the “last mile” on our knees. But even here, even in extremis, the mocking humorousness of the situation is not neglected by the poet; this last mile, oogie-boogie style, is “shimmied on our knees.” It seems that we are to chuckle at ourselves in our spiritual seeking, our thirst to arrive. Perhaps there is some nobility in such a sly acknowledgement of our perpetual “shortcomings.”
This uncertainty of our arrival–emphasized from the first line of the poem–is no doubt why we are instructed to drink with “tragic hands.” And then there is the brilliant image of the hands, wet with this very ambivalent arrival, after our midnight creeping, after the anguish of our hungry souls “howling” for sustenance, “encased in silver to their wrists.” Our desire has brought us here, has manacled us to this destiny of seeking. Even in the very act of fulfillment there is to be no satiation; we are locked into a cycle of spiritual seeking. It is a rather grim image of that meditation many traditions label a spiritual practice or discipline.
But what other choice does the howling soul have? Given the poverty of our spiritual circumstances, given the hunger for arrival, we can only continue to seek. But now that we, with sufficient gratitude and desperation, have arrived at this temporary river, we should drink. Tomorrow we may seek, but tonight we drink!
Drink and drink; drink deep, O traveler–
Tomorrow we must find this river again.
[Gregg G. Brown]
Oct. 1, 2012
A voice wakes me with its pin Niggling in my ear. I can't quite catch the lapsing sense In the folding moan of words. The moon embalms the ocean. Enhanced stars are blown about the sky. The sea sneaks so close, I can hear Its little million feet. And there, beyond the crinkled cliffs, A splinter of sail. . . .
He thought at first he was Mark Spitz, Slickly triumphant in Speedos, Because the mirror kept its own counsel Between more amenable poses. Then he thought he was the Mutant X, Of a DNA not quite fixed,-- Because his brother used furious crayons In the TV's square glare. And last, he thought his death might be A captain's statue, heroic, unruined, Because the sun was shining blandly All that day.
The optimist without pants Supposes plagues of pantaloons Or, better still, intenser still Imposes strippages like chaps Above, beneath, or somewhere-- Nakeding the trousered things. The best of all possible pants Are numb and naked nothings. The philosopher's frosty fundament Sat fatly enthroned in a world Stripped bare of pants, but not Of their conception, their conceit. It was a world where no pants were And were never spoken of again.
All must come and dance, and dance With my friend, my friend Michele. Michele, Michele, wild, wild Michele who streams along the clay hills Wild as lightning, light as nakedness Or kindness; wild, wild Michele. Kind, kind Michele, who answers The dance's insistence With diffidence, lively, lively With her eyes, wild Michelean eyes So lively and kind, kind, her eyes--- Lamps in a deep place, and a dark. All must come, must dance, with my friend Wild, wild Michele; kind, kind Michele.
"What things real are there but imponderable thoughts?" ---Ahab There was Tenor in his party grave, sharing All of the same old sick jokes with himself. 1 He says, "What is there besides imagining? These four occasional walls will not bring Spring or sorrow to any unsuffering thing. It is the will that wanes, in summer dark, After clogged stars have scraped the sky and left A newer dark for some cold singer's questioning. Rusted apples gathered, honey melons dusky gold, Cherries rosing in the tinted sun, what was invented If not these things? Shall my hand remain Unfloured by its own effort? A pointed oar Plunges and plunges in a white war and remains An oar. The mind is not so meager; it becomes, Once its rent raiment roars, in polychromes Above chalk waters that it held and gave, That of which it sang and did not hear, because Too busy singing in undivided, tensile mystery." 2 If, on the wings of sparrows, men's feet shall flesh Who shall fly, in contrapuntal destiny, In waltz time, alone, beneath The unceasing testament of the waves? Tenor Semblance in his water-wings, bulbing At his back, held his breath and dived, at 4, Into the tossing terror of a tame sea. Once caught among the coral's shadowing, he saw The flash and error of dying fish in that dim maze. Their antlered looks and opalescent eyes Placed a holy horror in his slalom breast Racing, among more mobile lights, out of death's Abrupt shade. He knew of earth by this buried paradise. He told his parents of the sharking waves and sea. Alone, His executed gestures in scarred sunset seemed The switch-back hesitancy of leaves. 3 It was his mother's going, her poignant death, Like still water, that made him hear Curlicues of God's named trumpet, world. A French horn paddles in his ear; Finches mocked the minister at her wake, his frown Emitted solo labyrinths, corona icicles of sound. Tenor Semblance, leaving, knew his feet Were tambourines, clashing in the grass. And when he whispered, it was with sorrow That he could not sing himself a barrow. In her twinking time upon this mortal orb, In laundered air, tender sequences Of love and love, flashed from her bright center Like perpetual suns that sang and knew their tune. It was because of her he sought A personal, vocal dew. 4 Semblance swelled in his soft decor. Like an awkward Alice, he used his vital eye To distill a separate scenery in the dwindled grass. Little thunder smoked the mountaintops. Gnats as vultures bulked silence on their prey. But a swung censor, sacred scenting, never lends Its incense to these more airy tendencies. Neither garland of flowers, in a stiff ring, Nor any distincter bloom was worn. Victim in winter, he tried to say The measureless landscape he became: Desolate branches, details of packed snow, Paired tracks of deer, or south-seeking geese Dispassionate as the sky. There comes A crowd of moths, an abrupt lamp flapping In discontinuous circles as he speaks. 5 But should we sacrifice infinite finesse for that Snowblind and last, fatal profundity? Sonless Semblance once, with gagging glands, Turned abrogated Pa; the wincing world Trickled from his groin. He clawed out an eye And dived, lost in a reef, resulting in a sky Made blue, by harshest imagination, by Exclusionary rules. Was it a mincing butcher's Cleaver thumb, his abusement of a One, Chopping up the single digit we pretend? False finesse? The sky was blue; he claimed To be the author, and his grave Was dug in blue clay; bluets brushed the edge. His mineral bones are scavenged by worms that die. Thus we see, beyond cut division or misty ending, Death is daughter to imagination's venting. 6 A man is image and is sound, Imagining sounds; a blare of being Scribbled like a cloud, pinched nothingness Palely resembling himself, in a mirror; Unalterable shadow, that falls As seasons fall, in whitest trumpeting. Thus was Tenor in his dirty grave, In severest evening, uttering A few, essential words. In his halter, Dawdling day undid the staunching fist Of night, and materbirds like mandolins Twanged his very song. They were his toys, who, Hautboy accountant, made of his breast Final register. A second heaven, set Beside the first, is best, when we forget Ourselves in what our wish of death becomes.
Lie there, my art. -- Prospero 1 Ho-ho! From out his party grave, up-popped The skeletal self that Tenor'd tamed. Dewy longings drift half-wet, in ziggurats, Down the dirty sticks of his dry fact, Lending a silver-inlay to his polar bones. Desire sniffs for roses through groutless nose-holes And musty wines slalom a gorgeless gob. Nothing of the lover, of the brother Lingers here. I stick four mournful fingers Through his clackers for a tongue, wagging Idiot digits in mime Shakespearean. No Yasunarian voice, Horatio, ensued. No Ophelian sonnets rained in daisy-chains. Lipless ivories inferred infernal grins. Tongueless Tenor Semblance, disinterred, Master-man and mirror-me, was DEAD! And I? 2 I am no Poet-Frankenstein, evoking souls From wounded earth. For me, a hole is a hole Is a hole. Love caressed, love cupped, love cuffed Suckles living teats, not this bony xylophone. Still, I loiter here half-longingly and toe Pale parabolas of a pelvis furred with mold. I, too, shall one day come undone, un- Buttoned before the mawkish gawkers in the wood, Dining on no niceties but dusty praise. And you, and you. Bluets brush my boots, Sans author in penless processional. Tallied Tenor here, pure loss, is less and less,-- A condensate escaped in Gobi air. What last farewell, or goodbye cry, can I Cachinnate for such luckless kin? Feral fate! The day, the hour, is late. 3 Though crass and cursed and cloistered In a hole, my man of clay, who I made, Unmade me. Iffy gift! Solitude still knows: To live our lithest days in sackcloth is a sin. My vampire mirror blings, bingeing on blanks. I miss the mischievous elf I myself had minted, Wry coinage of a brain love-benumbed. Impresario of puppets, piccolo fish Waving in a world wigged with sideways seagrass, I command my scarecrow scalawag, Tenor (Whom I marched off to death, alas) a last Resurrection reappearance imagineer. Coffin-lid, crack! Earth erupt and burp-up Voodoo me, vanished voice and vair ermine. Pffft! And see, through misty mazy day, In his water-wings and goggle-gear. . . . 4 "Irksome apparition! Clavicle and skull But prank the picked-out polychromes of life More sullied dull. Pink is less pricked than pinky. How can twanged canaries out-crow sepulchres? Muddy mausoleums high-rise our tipping tropes. No quip out-kids a skeleton's ghastly grin." So I solemnized in my preacher's best. But cut-rate Tenor in his rotted tux Retailed another fable, made gritty By eternal Time's half-sandy clasp. "Birds of paradise in their jungle mung Whistle fluent waltzes more queer than square. When kisses come twitting between the stars, Their ache is more than mausoleums are. The softest-rose of live lips out-quips Clown-corpse midgets and their brazen cars. The curds Of life are sacred, but only as we sip." 5 So I sat in puzzlement complete. Head-hanging, feet-dangling, I weeped. I kicked Spic hobnails against the grave's gouged walls. I did not want to hum, or ham, the mournful measure A mealy mouth had found. Must I have more to say? To do, to be? Was wishing up to me? Argent star and pentecostal ghost! It was. The prolog past was mere evaporate because. I zipped upon the slipping ice, slouch-hatted, As I myself alone, floe to floe. Tenor was my made-up man, my solo ghost; Of his fragile form, I was holy host. Vital tailor! Sledding immortality but slips Us in our heart-stitched skins again. Thus we see, beyond Death's batty beam, Is is brighter than the vim of seems. 6 How, in all this claustric Ought, ought I To utter and confess my consummate "Ow to Joy"? Life is pain, and fidgets As it sings. Dr. Formaldehyde in his lab-coat, Peering in, thumbs an icy stethoscope to quiz All coughs, all crimes. What Rabelaisian Parable am I in? What sly reply does this Inquisitive pin in my inflated thigh Giggle to confide? None, none. All my splendid spillages funnel down to One: "Paradise is simple as the simple dew. Blond Life, raw, unadorned, Is apple enough when we feel adored. --Settle quick the pipping kettle, Kate, And kiss the kittens twice.-- Unintended Heaven whistles wettest, when we forget Ourselves."
How do we know we have arrived? No gate blows open, no trumpet swings wide Giving boogie-oogie oogie-boogie to the countryside. Our horses must feed on grass, or perish. So, too, our souls. Having gone down the long defiles All night, in a night that is not sure of ending, Our souls paw their bellies and howl. Even a ghost craves ghostly sustenance. Have we arrived then, when midnight creaks And starved souls howl at the wolvish moon? Or must we still, in our hunger, kneel and pray? Must a glittering track shiver in the sleepy pines For the last mile shimmied on our knees? Bend at that track, and drink with tragic hands, With hands encased in silver to their wrists. Drink and drink; drink deep, O traveler-- Tomorrow we must find this river again.