Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunted River,

by Robert S. King.  

Shared Roads Press. 88pp.

ISBN 978-0-578-03414-0

 

 

 

The Hunted River, the newest book of poems by poet Robert S. King, is a nest of pathways: a map checkered in trails of roads, knots, time, and rivers; it speaks from a nomadic spirit, depicting the life of a wanderer and is written, as the epigraph reads, “for all who never feel at home.” Its poems examine the poet’s own life through an amalgamation of nature and machine, memory and loss, childhood and parenthood, and violence and peace, reflecting on the differences and conflicts between each, but also on the meaning to be found in such conflicts. In this way, the collection is largely a reflection on life as a great wandering, yet it always bears in mind the final, inevitable end, “a red light/ where the road/ dead ends.”

 

The book is separated into six parts, each titled for a different direction and capturing a different perspective on life’s journey. The first section is ‘Go the Way of Dreams;’ it is a beginning at the end, where, “A long life of needles no longer stings,” and, ”all voices join their own echoes.” “The Juggler Tells His Children of Dreams” is the first poem and an introduction to the roads ahead; it sets a tone of reminiscence and searching as a series of advice from the experienced wanderer to the new. In “A Loiterer’s Diary” King ruminates on the meaning of the past to the present and future as a man near the end of his journey, with nowhere left to go. He concludes the section with “Prophets Climbing to Machu Picchu,” in which, “a séance blows from lower nights/ and we glance back to flickering jewels,” transitioning to part two: ‘Go the Way of Memory.’

 

This portion of the collection delves into memories as a state of existence; in “Fading Pictures,” “What Missing the Cat Means," and “Legacy” we see loss thwarted but also perpetuated by memory in skillfully woven, paradoxical observations: “Her absence is a presence,/ a breath you can never quite exhale.” Here King also pays a great deal of attention to the search for meaning throughout life. “Am I the point I make of myself?” reads the opening line of “Punctuation,” and it continues in the trend of pathways found in the rest of the text: “If I could edit my life as this line I shape,/ not to see my age empty beyond the colon:/Listen to my silence.” In his precise attention to the technical side of his writing and the power of contradiction, King also reveals a certain playfulness within his heavy ruminations. The colon following “colon” and the lack of silence in “my silence” are discrete and jocular, but they contain no less insight for it.

 

The third section, ‘Go the Way of Labor,’ continues this playfulness, perhaps most obviously in the less discrete “The Gentleman Who Woke Up as a Goat,” but it also continues the concept of meaning found in contradiction. This portion of the book is a mixture of memories and voices. “Veterans Know a Purr Is Just an Infant Growl” presents the twisted relationship between peace and violence, “War is my wife; Peace my tortured child.” while, “The Scarecrow at Harvest Time” expounds this connection into an intimate, sexual, and domestic affair: “your fingers snake along my boneless back/ the shrinking Prince once erect of all men/ has lost his sword in battle/ now in his new passions/ what is not soft is numb.” King relates this theme back to the central theme of the book, the wanderer’s journey through life, by considering its effect on the individual. It is the domestic scenes that characterize this section, uniting the labors of life with the continued search for meaning in poems such as “Primal TV” and “Why I Bought a Truck.” The third portion culminates with “Sculpting the Desert,” a reflection on an already-traveled path through life from its end at, “the line in the sand/ drawn by a serpent’s shadow:/ A finger writing, not straight, not deep,/ the birth of a canyon.” This poem also focuses on the life cycle, another important theme of the collection, with its closing lines, “Here then is your starting line/ and my ending.” Finally, it prepares the reader for the remaining sections as well, and the accompanying focus on the nature of the path.

 

 ‘Go the Way of Land,’ the book’s fourth part, examines the same themes of life, death, and memory in a context of physical roads. It also takes a turn toward the spiritual, a consideration not absent from the rest of the collection, but here it is a significant focus. “Sanctuary” and “Rock Road” transform the mundane nature of a normal road into the journey toward heaven, but King continues his focus on the individual and he strives to illustrate the personal nature of the path. “It’s not a public road/ you take to the promised land.” he asserts: although life is a journey we all undertake, the paths we take through it are unique and wholly our own. Likewise, the road to “the promised land” is personal, as is the final goal: “and the road named for you/ pours like water into your own heaven.” Again, King focuses on the contradiction: on a journey for that which differs for all, considering the nature of the path: the route of the many, against the nature of the journey: the route of the individual.

 

In part five, ‘Go the Way of Water,’ King melts the roads and paths from before into rivers. To King, rivers represent the natural flow of life, in an abstract sense: the continuous journey, as well as in a literal sense: the flow of water that animals and plants must follow in order to survive. The nature themes ubiquitously present in the book come to the fore here. King contrasts the natural world with the industrialized human one, and hunting becomes a central focus in poems such as “The Treasure of Bone,” Cottonmouth Catchers in a Night Swamp,” and “Dream of the Electric Eel.” Additionally, this section contains the book’s namesake poem. “The Hunted River” is a memory of a childhood hunt with the narrator’s father. Through the eyes of a young and unwilling hunter we see the life of the forest and the importance of the great river flowing through it. This memory also establishes the play on words in the title: it combines the father’s technique of ‘hunting the river’ for the animals that must come to it to drink with the son’s search for meaning and peace in the life of the river. The son’s idealistic instruction, “Dream that somewhere,/ maybe in another universe,/ a river runs forever wild,/ purified by its own voyage./ Yet, at its calmer moments the animals drink.” stands in contrast with the reality of his father’s actions, but they hauntingly share a similar logic, “My father is smart./ He, too, follows the river./ He knows rabbits have to drink.” This conflict, one of generations, peace and violence, and different journeys along the same path, encapsulates well the mood, themes, and reflections of the collection as a whole.

 

The book concludes with the sixth part ‘Go the Way of the Wind.’ The same discussions continue, but now King looks toward the sky and the transience of the wind. He unites passion, futility, and reverence with motifs of breath and kisses, smoke, and the journey of leaves blowing from a tree. King unites the major themes of his poetry, but throws them to the sky, creating a wonderfully sound and translucent conclusion. The final poem “Relativity” reintroduces King’s more comic observations with its beginning lines, “The highest achievement of my relatives,/ is blood pressure,” but therein continues King’s great search for meaningfulness in life, considering the contradictions of the life cycle, a process that necessitates death, and the river as a path and as life once again: “Like them, my window/ on the windy world tenses and cracks/ into a small river with a big mouth.”

 

The six routes through which King leads his readers illustrate distinct moods and perspectives, but they also share the common bond of the river flowing throughout. Although each has its own focus, here the serenity of the natural world juxtaposed with the violence of the hunter, here memory as a union of the past and the present, none of these themes disappears anywhere in the book. In fact, the unity of the work is perhaps King’s greatest accomplishment in the collection; nature, war, the suburbs, an electric eel, even Machu Picchu come together in an enormous philosophical reminiscence on life: the life lived, the life in progress, and the life to come. In The Hunted River King skillfully blends insight, humor, and impression: he delves into contradiction and thoroughly explores the steps of a traveler through life. His poems are the annals of a wanderer, speculating at life through everyday, accessible scenes and images that flow together into an excellent collection of poetry: a worthwhile journey and a deep river.

 

Shawn Bodden