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