For the Rivers

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Shall we gather at the river? If there is a river, if we can find it, if it hasn’t departed, leaving its stony bed naked to the sky, if it hasn’t spilled over its banks and poured through our streets and houses…

Wednesday night, at the Cathedral’s Evening of Witness, we ended with the hymn whose title is my first sentence, and heard tales of the power of water and the cruelty of men. The Voice of Witness book series, founded by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen, provided first-person narratives, read aloud by poets and our storyteller, Laura Simms. Dan Brights’s story: he was one of many prisoners left locked in the jail during Hurricane Katrina. As the water rose and no one came—not to feed them, not to help them—the men gathered their strength and broke out of their cells—hours of kicking metal—then dug through concrete to rescue other prisoners. Many drowned. Meanwhile, the guards sat outside. Waiting, he said.

Patricia Smith read her poem, 34,  about the 34 elderly nursing home residents left to die during the disaster: fierce and funny, she recreated all the voices of the 34.  Nicole Cooley read Evacuation, her long poem about waiting to hear what happened to her parents who stayed in New Orleans through the hurricane. This poem was quieter, low-key, but just as powerful; her narrator is middle-class, with middle class expectations, yet her fear and outrage is the same fear and outrage Patricia expressed, that Dan Bright expressed, that we all remember. As another woman, Diana, said (recorded by Voice of Witness), “I’ve never experienced conditions this bad, not even in my home village in Peru. There, when disasters happened, aid came. Here, nothing. It was worse here.”

We saw riveting photographs of Japan after the tsunami that took over 15,000 lives, and photographs of Katrina and other places, rivers, deserts (provided by the Magnum Foundation).  The Cathedral choir sang, and the orchestra played Handel and Liszt, and Prayer of the Whale, based on a poem by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, composed by Christina Whitten Thomas. I kept looking behind me before it started, and during the first pause, checking attendance. A lot of people came at the last minute, or after the opening: the last time I looked there were rows and rows of people in the dimness of the Cathedral, hundreds, stretching far back, all seeming a little more solemn, more serious than an ordinary audience. I don’t  know what they were thinking but I imagine them as spellbound as I was.

Marilyn Nelson, our Poet in Residence, read Nothing Stranger about the strangeness and wonder of human beings in the universe,  and the wonder of the stars and distances, the celestial forces. She looked like a celestial force, with her spangled jacket, long gown and exquisitely done hair. But all the poets were beautiful. We only allow beautiful poets in the Cathedral.

At the conclusion, Amy Goodman spoke with passion about the need to fight back against the corporations controlling water, the do-nothing politicians, the swiftly-approaching climate catastrophe.

Yes, that. Not the disasters of 2004, 2005, 2011, but the future.  Will things will be better, worse, the same…? Not the same, never the same. Water will rise up and clobber our frail bodies, dismantle our houses. Water will grow scarce, be fouled with agricultural run-off, methane from fracking, any number of pollutants. There will be fewer fish and animals, more people. Even with the diseases of crowding and dirty water (which kill so many children you would think we were like those “lesser” creatures that routinely let the weakest offspring die), there will be more people.

And it’s spring in New York; in March, the flowers of late April are blooming. The trees are all in blossom: the puffy pinks and whites so surprising—every year, surprising—against the geometric buildings. I was talking with Tom Miller from the Cathedral as we walked to the reception. “At this rate, can you imagine what summer will be like?” I asked. “Maybe will just have a long spring,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Four months of this.” Tom has a sunny disposition.

But yes, four months of spring flowers would make up for a lot, though not really for dead children.

I sat in the audience and listened and I thought about water, about the lake of my childhood that I loved like a lover, wanted to love that way, arms and legs straining against the cold humming depth, trying to make myself into something that could truly embrace a lake. I remembered the New Jersey ocean that flung me around, and the gentler Florida ocean where I sometimes swim at night, when the bruise-blue of the water invisibly meets the sky. I thought of how I love reading about journeys by water—I read Kontiki a dozen times in early adolescence, indoors, outdoors, in the bath, in the car, up a tree—and houseboats, and actual and invented cultures that live on rafts on the water, people never leaving the body of the river.

I don’t actually like boat travel. I only want to do it in my imagination, and I mourn the fact that this mode of experience isn’t as natural to me as it once was. I put it in words better, which may fool you. But once I really lived there, in the endless place, the only place on earth as vast and mysterious as the ocean: our first and last and in-between home, which we will all lose. I believe, though, that we can trust water—rivers, rain, lakes, the sea with its secret powers—to come up with something new, even if we all stupid ourselves to destruction.

Let’s not, though.  People are having babies. Let them drink clean water. Let them gather at the river, dare each other to jump from high branches into the river, make love beside the river, scatter the ashes of their dead in the river.

That would be us, the ashes. I want the cold, dark water when I die. I want to know what they call the Styx on the other side. Maybe it’s the shore where everyone picnics, where the dogs we left behind who have found us again play, and the herons stand on one leg, where a hippo rears out of the mud with its great bulbous snout and female sway, and we all sing hymns of Earth, Heaven and Hell. And, you know, eat the cold meats, the spring salad, the cake; and drink the crystal water and make love.  Here’s a poem you probably haven’t read.


Be careful if you take this flower into your house. The peony has a thousand lips. It is pink and white like the lady’s skirt and smells sharp and sweet as cinnamon. There are a thousand ants living inside but you will only see one or two at a time. I am like that down there–pink and busy inside. The dark is a bolt of cloth, crushed and blue, and I unfurl against it.  If you lie down on the floor of the closet the hems of silk will lick you. My own gown is thin as the skin of dried grass so I can see the ants dancing down there. The night has big paws.  I imagine the wool of the bears, the cloth of monkeys. The night smells like vetiver and cedar. His mouth is cool with mint and warm with rum, and I am not afraid as he rubs his wool against me. I saw the bear dancing at the circus when I was small. He was wearing a green felt cap with gold bric-a-brac and kept by a thin wire thread. My brother bought me a sucker for the train ride home, and I am like that now on the inside, burning soft with lemon. What fruit do you like best? I like tangerines.  And the night leaves me these. A small paper bag on the bedside table. The wrought iron and roses like an altar. I am glowing now.  My teeth are stitching kisses to my fist. I go to the river. My legs are frogs legs. Tiny wands, see how they glisten. A thousand fish swim through me. I am a boat now. I know no anchor. My hair unfurls, copper and cinnamon. Look how it opens, beautiful world.

Eve Alexandra


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