Thursday, August 14, 2008

Riverborne: A Mississippi Requiem, by Peter Neil Carroll

Riverborne: A Mississippi Requiem, by Peter Neil Carroll, 2008, 73 pp., CT,
Higganum Hill Books. ISBN-13:978-0-9776556-9-4. Paper: $12.95

Reviewed by Jared Smith,

Riverborne traces the erosion, confluences, and-inevitably-growth that is
available to men of awareness, even as the Mississippi River itself erodes
and gives promise to our continent and society. It is a remarkable book, a
leaning back into the time when poetry was both literature and timeless
social commentary.

It is a collection of poems built around the brotherhood of two men, one
black and one white, who have lived their separate lives together for over
40 years, wandering the country and building lives and families, following
cross-country roads, reading and teaching and loving, losing wives, going
on. More than a discussion or remembrance from these men, it is a book of
correspondence with past literary figures, most prominently Mark Twain, and
the American voices he created and recorded. And it is a discourse with the
waters themselves, and the backwater tributaries that pour into the vast
Mississippi drainage along with their pollutants and other industrial
discharges, and basic "FOUR WORD SIGNS" of eternal hope and food. All of
these are washed away, immersed in the waters, and brought back as something
more complex and stronger, more multi-textured and more seasoned, than the
individual visions these men set out with 25 years ago when they first
traveled along the banks of America's river.

Dates in time are given in the titles of the opening poems of this book,
emphasizing that change and growth happen over lifetimes, but soon the exact
dates disappear from the titles "gone the way two men get bleached/under
fast moving suns, rained upon, lose/ the shade of hair, their speed." Time
itself becomes another mingling force within the stream, another distillant.
Known objects, animate and inanimate change their places and interact: "we
parallel their path on the bridged height,/approach tall branches of bare
trees/dressed with castaway pairs of gym shoes/a girl's brassiere, strange
ritual of wintered students.Here, I said to Jim, 'Here's where we start.'"

The travel a landscape of real symbols.hard, bitter, cruel, and shock-edged:

One sun-glassed cyclist's lettered leather jacket:



'Fell or jumped?' cracks Jim;

he knows about women

who leave men in a hurry.

Her dream; his fear; her insistence; his fury.

Time and experience speak from varied perspective echoes.overlapping
universes subsumed in poetic vision. The varied locational echoes are
important, adding depth and pull to the currents:

The running river speaks in signs, spills a low wave

to shore, startles a bare-armed mother spoon-feeing

her baby on the grass. Slow sun scorches

the torpid air, the wakened man lifts

a staticky radio to his ear,

catches the first pitch from St. Louis.

There are disembodied shocks that pull one in and out of reality:

"and then Jim spots real trouble in very fine print


Well, as this book develops its full field of experience, it becomes clear
that when you break away, when you are free even in a media-covered country
scared of its own shadows, you cannot be nailed to time. You cannot be
monitored by video surveillance because the force of life lies outside of
time. The river is to vast, too complex within its currents, too inevitable
for technology or paranoia to comprehend.

Here is America's heartbeat:

two spinning rivers writhe in circles,

charge into the watery labyrinth:

another beat, another maddened run.

Here is America's torn body,

battered as the continent.

Here tectonic plates broke the earth,

shuddered plains, shook the river

until her water ran backward.

Here in this book is a slow building power that can splinter and reshape us
in the heart of our country, where the New Madrid fault will someday
reassert itself in the heartland of our country,

as it did in 1811 and 1812 when the waters rolled backward as they will
again. This is a book well worth reading and keeping on your shelf, and an
experience well worth keeping in your mind.

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