05 November 2011

Understanding a River

A river is a handy metaphor for many things. Time and progress map succinctly to the rhythms of a river. I have lived by flowing water all my life.

As a boy I lived by a brook. The brook had eddies and pools and channels. It had exposed roots and small sand bars. The brook gave me the sneaker-soakers I needed to begin to understand life. It also provided an ever-changing living-stage for all the characters in my imaginary world.

Now I live a brisk walk from Big Muddy - The Mississippi River. Water is as constant as anything I have known. Flowing water connects me with the past. Brooks, streams, and western creeks have allowed me to dream the future like the current carries an autumn leaf out of view. I am a temporary observer, but I prefer it that way.

I used to run a Mississippi River loop crossing two bridges high above the water. One November night I jogged past a unclothed man perched on the top guardrail on the old Lake Street - Marshall Avenue bridge (right). The man's hands were joined as if to pray, but he was poised on the railing like a swimmer on a starting block.

My instinct was to ignore him --to ignore the unfolding tragedy. Who was I to interrupt an intensely personal decision? Sometimes death is the only answer that makes sense. The river is a dispassionate conveyance to another place.  

The man was incensed that I failed to notice him. He ran after me.

Sensing him closing in, I hurdled the short railing onto the pavement of the bridge deck as did he. He broke into a sprint, then jumped on my back. We hit the deck -- a strange slow-motion ballet. I reversed him, then pinned him to the pavement. He was frozen and naked, affixed to the white center-line curled like a fetus. I got up then back-peddled across the bridge. His mouth was stuck open like the horrified subject in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

A car slowed down and stopped by him. The driver picked the man up, and guided him into the back seat of the car, then drove forward, and rolled down the window to ask me if I was okay.

That the river is a dispassionate conveyance to another place comes as stark recognition in Bruce Springsteen's Matamoros Banks. In this tune, a dead man floats a border river after having tried to cross into a better life.

A river is a suitable metaphor for progress. There are processes steeped in potential energy that determine the course of a river. So it is for social justice.
Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
A river is an alluring metaphor for time. Looking at a river is like looking at time. I suspect time, like a river, would be better understood at a different scale. Perhaps if we could see the long-view of time, we would see its path wasn't constant. Perhaps time would carve great canyons.

We will never understand a river, but that won't stop me from writing a poem about it.
Understanding a River
Saint Paul, 6 November 2011 

It's no more possible to understand a river
than to comprehend the channels love will carve
or to predict what size sand grains will drop
from suspension on its leeward banks

If creeks are smaller than streams
and streams are smaller than rivers
why do we love so much like water?

Water taxis and gondolas full of autumn's leaves
drift from our attention like defiant indifference
Yet we implore the gondolier to paddle faster
on the off chance of reliving past infatuations

In this poem, a river becomes a little like love.

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