Green Hills Literary Lantern

 


Preface to GHLL XXII



I like the cover photo for this issue. No, I mean I really like it. This is not surprising. After all, I chose it. If you know St. Louis, you look at this scene and you can just about smell the levee. But that’s not the reason. The picture does everything a poem is meant to do. One does not have to be a child of the city and its river to appreciate what Eliot called “that strong brown god” -- a line I first heard misquoted as “strange brown god,” which actually better captures the Mississippi’s unfathomable motion-in-stasis, implacably ordinary and irreducibly uncanny.

In the photo it’s almost appetizing – cocoa, or café-au-lait -- but also hardly more than an elongated mudpatch, seeming barely to move (but famously treacherous, as anyone knows who has actually tested those currents). And then there is the bridge, possessed of the same dignity as its near-contemporary, the Eiffel Tower, and for the same reasons: in its day a marvel of modernity, now charmingly antique, a reminder of a century when technology seemed to have a bit more soul to it, and indeed now rusting into mystical union with the mudbanks it conjoins.

That span itself, at once exuberant, energetic, and as lazy as the stream it overarches, provokes a kinaesthetic response, the same way, if you stand behind a group of people looking at the Laokoön group and watch them watching it, you see the spectators unconsciously approximating the writhing postures before them.

As we take in this view of Eads' Bridge, our eyes follow that iron curve, and we feel ourselves stretching in imitation of the arc, reaching for the yonder, pulsing out as if trying to launch something across that gulf. It is the concrete correlative of those poignant yearnings that scurry away from us as we try to coax them close with breadcrusts, hoping they'll let themselves be named.The photographer has given us a vision we can get for ourselves any old time, and maybe we have in fact stood there -- but the image distills a fraught experience,  what oft was seen, but ne'er so well framed. Yes: a poem should make the strange familiar, or the familiar strange. But there is more.

Close on two hundred years ago, quite literally a stone’s throw from where Hegeman stood to make the shot, in the Basilica of St Louis the King (what St. Louisans call “The Old Cathedral,” though then it was in the final stages of construction), the bonding of a young couple was duly entered in the parish registry. The event is recorded in French, the language of that time and place, though the Spanish name of the groom's mother marked her for one of the previous proprietors of the spot, and though the baby this couple would have on Christmas Day three years hence would know St. Louis as a German-speaking city (and live just barely long enough to see that language stamped out -- along with the Turnvereine and Liederkränze --  in a patriotic frenzy).

 

That young couple – John Harvais and Geneviève Caillou – well, their names were writ in water, muddy water. I ran across this record in the course of other business, and there is no reason for us to spend much time thinking about them. But they must have stood on this very spot, and just as surely, they looked across the river to the Illinois shore. And on that June morning, the first of their life together, they undoubtedly thought about the future. They were pioneers, the real deal, in a landscape with yet rather few human marks upon it. Of course it has long and for good reason been out of fashion to think in kindly ways of pioneering or the marks it leaves, but we may still be permitted to engage, sympathetically, the aspirations and anxieties of young people confronting the vast and always trackless future (I sometimes fear that this empathy is exactly and most crucially what we have mislaid).

Out on the muddy water -- risen and roiling, at that season and long before the Corps of Engineers tamed it -- they must have seen those newfangled steamboats, and John had to know he was seeing something different from what his forbears, the conquistadors, had seen. Geneviève (she would, in her old age, answer to “Jane”) knew that it had all looked otherwise in the days of her grandfather, who had, under the direction of a fourteen-year-old commander (so the legend runs) hacked a village out of the scrub along the bluff, and had been among the very first buried in the yard of the log church which had been replaced by the simple but impressive edifice from which they now stepped forth, into... well, God knew what.

And we know too, don't we? 

All of this has been done, and better, of course, by our friend Walt:

 

Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;  

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;  

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east; 

Others will see the islands large and small;  

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;  

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,  

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

But that’s just the point, just the point exactly. There Walt stood, on the Brooklyn Ferry, more than a century and a half ago now, imagining forward, imagining us. He edges hopefully, hesitantly toward imagining us imagining him, but I don't think he quite sees us seeing him, thinking of him as impossibly remote, historical. He was too busy being himself, being modern (Lord! He thought himself modern, as Eiffel and Eads thought their steampunkery). He is so busy insisting on how like him we will be that he can't take time to imagine how very different the world will have become.

John and Jane, so dull of name, never touched fame. And I can't imagine them imagining in any detail this twenty-first century in which they are being written about and read about by means of a technology it would take a considerable while to explain to them. They were someone’s future, someone’s past. Maybe they thought about that too, maybe they imagined the bridge that would rise miraculously for their fiftieth anniversary. Most likely they went back to their farm in what was then the separate city of Florissant; the first crops would soon be ready, and there was work to do. We have passed over in silence the visions of the Indians whom they displaced, who in those days were still to be encountered at the fringes of the settlement. What did they think of the changes they saw? What did they remember, and what did they foresee?

A poem is a moment of transport that takes us out of our selves. If that statement is not mere cliché, it means the poem forces upon us a sudden and intense experience of the nowness of now, the hereness of here, and paradoxically, of the pregnancy of here and now with past and future, all times and places, and the immanence in us, yes, of that good gray poet crossing Brooklyn Ferry and thinking laureate thoughts, but also of a red-cheeked, roughknuckled farm couple standing on a stinking riverbank on a hot Missouri morning, thinking probably in no very clear way about the "civilized" country across that impassable water, and the kneehigh corn demanding their attention on this side.

Let the cover photo stand for the contents of this issue – for the way, just to take an example, Frederick Zydek wonders, as surely every one of us has wondered, what it is to die, whether our experience of it is more or less what animals endure. Or the way Starr Goode asks us to join her in thinking about thinking about thinking about Falstaff – his cowardice, sensuality, brutality and wisdom. A fairly small percentage of our readers, I feel safe in saying, have travelled to Nigeria. But which of us has not made a journey like that of Onuora in Okechukwu Otukwu’s “The Cousin from Abroad”?

Graduate students of a certain vintage had to pay homage to the Nietzschean view of language as a “prisonhouse,” but to me it has always been the keyring  dangling from the jailor’s belt – or maybe better, a scrap of flexible steel that, with patience, cunning, luck (often in short supply) and time (of which we have both too little and too much) we can turn into a jimmy. It is the means of escape from the prisonhouse of mere self, mere now, mere here.

So come ahead -- the door's unlocked, the bridge stands open.

 

 

 

Adam Brooke Davis