(This essay appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of The Country and Abroad.)
Take Me To The River
Chris Kluge invited me to bring a gift for our walk beside the Hudson River: a line of poetry, a button, a precious stone, an item to leave as a good luck charm for a stranger to find. I considered the mementos on my bulletin board from previous walks, ranging from feathers to acorn caps to a dried luna moth, but decided not to part with any of these little keepsakes. Instead, I’d bring a sharpie to try writing poetry on leaves. But what exactly? Our stretch of the Hudson hadn’t inspired any classic poems that I knew of. No Whitman of Rhinebeck or Dickinson of Tivoli. So I chose the obvious poem that came to mind, Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” with its famous opening line, “I’ve known rivers.”
Almost two years ago, Chris Kluge had moved to Rhinebeck from Westchester, where she’d raised two daughters and discovered a talent for prose poetry, which lends itself to Surrealism. Here’s an example from her second book, Stirring the Mirror, published under her full name, Christine Boyka Kluge:
Hungry for light, Ice Boy pushes his head up through frozen soil, into the field of snow. Newborn among cornstalk stubble, he glitters like a sapphire. Water gurgles through his veins. As his crystalline carapace melts, he sighs with a voice between harmonica and bell. He will be beautiful, falling as silver rain onto the distant ocean. He will taste like sugar to mountain children, who will catch his feathers on their tongues.
To be honest, I felt slightly intimidated, if not envious of Chris’s imagination that drew verbal portraits with a Rembrandt-like brilliance that made my own efforts at Surrealism seem cartoonish. In person, however, she’s hardly Gothic or gloomy. She’s hardly and friendly, an independent woman who follows her curiosity. We’d met at a poetry reading, but I’d gotten to know her better through her blog about nature walks, including many at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, her sanctuary in Westchester. She posted nature photographs–she had a good eye, especially for patterns in bark or ice that suggested secretive symbols–and she added a line or two from a poem like a benediction to the moment that she’d captured with her camera. I loved her talent for matching lines to a scene. For all the poetry that I’ve read, I can never recall useful lines at opportune moments. My reading got left behind in books. She brought hers into the field to enrich her experiences.
Before moving to Rhinebeck, Chris had called to ask about the area. A big concern was leaving behind Ward Pound Ridge Reservation with its miles of trails and secluded spots that she’d come to think of as her refuge. I’d warned her that we didn’t have any parks quite like Ward Pound Ridge, but after settling in Rhinebeck, she’d found her way to the former estate properties converted to parks along the Hudson, where she’d established new sanctuaries for herself. On an autumn afternoon, she led me to her favorite, a pocket cove below Mills Mansion. The stony beach had a calendar-worthy view of a bay in the river that looked like a lake. On the far side stood the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, a cozy white house almost too big for its tiny rock island. The rising humps of the Catskills dominated the horizon.
Though near the trail, the cove felt secluded, a gray pebble beach between slick slabs of bedrock. Two fallen tree trunks hogged the beach, perhaps blocking some people from walking down to the water, a gentle lapping on this calm afternoon. Earlier in the summer, Chris had begun beach combing in this s pot, an activity reminiscent of childhood vacations in Maine. She found glass nuggets and ceramic chips washed up among the pebbles, which, themselves, included many odd fusions of smooth gray stone and rough white quartz that she dubbed “tooth rocks” because they resembled molars from the mouths of giants with poor dental hygiene. Pleased by her discoveries, she laid her exotic collection of pebbles and nuggets in a snake-like pattern atop one of the logs, and thus a tradition was born. Several days later, she returned to find that many of her pieces had been taken, which pleased her further that strangers had appreciated her little treasures. She assembled another sculpture from her beach combings, and in time developed a routine of returning to cove to lay out patterns of snakes or grids or swirls that might include bones, feathers, driftwood, or anything else that had washed up on the beach. The tides always brought fresh discoveries.
On my visit I saw two newly made sculptures. A split along the length of one fallen trunk held a row of wedged-in arrowhead-like rocks for what she thought of as a miniature Stonehenge. The wider log held a row of bright pebbles and green glass nuggets like a bejeweled snake. Though small, her pieces left no doubt that a person had enjoyed making art as our species has done for thousands of years.
She added poetry to her rituals. Inside a tin gift box with a clear lid she gently packed a quartz crystal, a gem stone, or a glass button along with a quotation that she’d calligraphed onto paper trimmed like an oak leaf. It might read:
“I apologize to big questions
for small answers.”
“I am a wandering girl,
My heart is practiced in longing.”
— from Paper Ridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky
“Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.”
— Flannery O’Connor
She left the little boxes on tree trunks or logs with a hand-calligraphed note: “If you found this, it was meant for you. Take it!”
A friend compared her to Johnny Appleseed, which is fitting, since these quotes are meant to be seeds that plant themselves in the woodsy musings of whomever finds them by the shoreline. One woman Chris met at the cove asked if she might send the quote to her daughter in the Peace Corps in Africa. Another, who’d recently lost her husband, had found Chris’s gift of a small glass oval engraved with the word “Halcyon,” which refers not only to golden serenity, as in Halcyon Days, but to kingfishers thanks to a Greek myth. Upon hearing that her beloved had died in a shipwreck, Alcyon had thrown herself into the sea in grief. Taking pity, the gods resurrected both of them as kingfishers. The Halcyon Days of Winter referred to the seven days without storms that the gods permitted her to nest on the beach. The recently widowed woman took this fable to heart because her husband had been a fisherman. Chris treasures these synchronicities created by her practices at the cove. She has tucked a guest book and a waterproof pen into a tree hollow for others to write their own little notes and poems.
She quickly found me a tooth rock among the beach pebbles as a gift for my visit, then got back to work on her log snake. For a moment I felt awkward, as if play time was meant for children rather than for adults, but as soon as I pulled out my sharpie I slipped into the spirit of our visit. I intended to write the Langston Hughes poem on leaves, so I gathered several yellow basswood leaves from the ground. They offered plenty of room to print “I’ve known rivers” and more when I used the leaf veins as notebook lines, but the overall effect was underwhelming: bad handwriting on dirty leaves. My image of leaves as little poetry flags had looked better in my mind’s eye. So I decided to launch them into the river as poetry boats. At the nearby point I stood on a boulder that rose straight out of the clear choppy water. Ten feet out in the current other leaves floated away from the shoreline at a steady clip. Who knew how far my leaf might travel like a message in a bottle? Alas, my first toss didn’t even reach the water. The leaf got snagged by cedar tree branches crowding the nose of my rock. My second landed in the water, but upside down and too close to shore to join the others exiting the cove on a current. Mine got stuck in an eddy and sank several inches to flop around like a drunken flounder. Thankfully, I had a better idea.
Faded orange survey tape tied to a shrub sapling offered two loose ends dangling like a skinny tie. The shorter strip was the right length to print “I’ve known rivers.” The longer held “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” The black ink made a bold statement on the orange tape for the perfect poetry banner. I was delighted, so I didn’t stop. There was another tape tied to a cedar trunk like an undone bow tie. A row of tapes marking trees in a straight line led me up the hillside. I must have graffitied eight or ten before I finished, every one I could find. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been marking up survey tags, but slipping poetry into public view always feels like a triumph. People enjoy reading poetry on subways posters; why not in the woods? In fact, why not invent orange poetry tape to offset the yellow caution tape that appears all too often in our lives? Wouldn’t we rather find inspiration?
Langston Hughes was seventeen when he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in 1920 while crossing the Mississippi on a train trip from Cleveland, where he’d graduated from high school, to Mexico City to stay with his estranged father for a year. Of course, the poem sounds nothing like a teenager’s view of life. It’s the voice of history itself, honoring the race that became African Americans:
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve know rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln when down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I, myself, couldn’t imagine writing anything so grand. Maybe it takes precocious youth to achieve such oracular command before the years start trimming our idealism. Young Langston Hughes dared to speak hugely because the world was still his to conquer. But what did I as a middle-aged white guy mean by “I’ve known rivers?”
By some measures, not very much. I wasn’t a river lover like Chris with her beach combing or like many others with their sailing or kayaking or even their dog walking that brought them down to the shoreline. I was a hiker who’d moved twenty years earlier to the Catskills to live in a cabin and climb the mountains. Rarely had I ventured down to the Hudson, viewing it primarily from the scenic remove of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, not the kind of intimate encounter needed to claim a place as your own. Yet I could see the value of Chris’s river. Mountains may have molded my character, stubborn and triumphant over the valleys below. Yet the river offered what I now needed to learn with its flux and its flow. A mountain is to be conquered. A river is accepted. Back home I placed Chris’s gift, my tooth rock, on my desk as a reminder to befriend the Hudson. It waits like the kernel of a poem yet to be written.