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The following review appeared 28 October 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Down to the Dark River: Contemporary Poems about the Mississippi River is not a volume for the faint of heart. It is a force to be reckoned with, and its contents reverberate through the valleys and across the ridges of mind, heart, and soul. These poems--contemporary in the sense they are largely written in free verse and rely on the poets' own choices for pacing, spacing, and voice--address daily life past and present, and the variety of occurrences possible, along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Mark Twain, known to have been dismissed as a "mere" humorist, was in fact "the most serious man in the world." These, too, are deep, poetic waters: sometimes ominous, sometimes playful, sometimes cryptic, but always forceful. They defy easy categorization except to say they are profound.
Mark Twain, although not directly the book's subject, nevertheless suffuses Down to the Dark River. His name appears in almost a dozen places, and similarly do the names of a few of his best-known literary characters. The book is filled with the tide of human experience from which Mark Twain drew his literary drafts, and its pages make mention of such Twainy locations as Cairo, Hannibal, Hartford, Napoleon, Natchez, and New Orleans.
A few poems evoke gritty, small-town scenes--for instance, the following example by Travis Mossotti. Of interest to Twainians is that Mossotti was once presented the May Swenson Poetry Award by none other than contest judge Garrison Keillor--who, as Forum members know, serves on the Board of Trustees Advisory Council for the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. Mossotti's "Dupo" begins:
Every day I ended up on the wrong side of the river
heading in the wrong direction, past Dupo, a town slumped
in red brick, tinseled with power lines and blown out
truck tires…. (132)
Then there are the exuberant outpourings. This one, "The Golden Meander," by Rose Nielsen, a poet and songwriter, takes neither a full breath nor a formal line-break in its single, sinuous paragraph beginning with:
ah the river bends, bends and genuflects to wash the bank, the washbank bends and genuflects to speed and spin the silty silky water, the silt that meets the salt a thousand and a thousand miles down, eight thousand miles of those shoe fly pies…silk and silty bright blue bows, oxbows, fluvial foulards, foolhardy as it tumbles…. (138)
Expressions of gratitude are included, such as this one by Michael Heffernan, a poetry teacher at the University of Arkansas. In "River of Life," after this heart-felt, matter-of-fact opening, Heffernan goes on to credit the role of the river in his son's, and the overall household's, healing process during that medical ordeal:
The Mississippi River in Arkansas
also runs by Memphis, Tennessee,
where the doctors and staff at St. Jude Children's
Research Hospital saved our youngest son
Mickey's life after he was diagnosed
with leukemia when he was five years old.
This May the 2nd he turned thirty-one.
They put cured on his folder twelve years ago…. (87)
Flooding is described in several poems. For example, in "Mississippi River," Charles Rafferty, an author and faculty member at Albertus Magnus College, states that after the water subsides:
It becomes peaceful again. It makes us
want to picnic on the grassy banks
overlooking its beauty--the same
beauty that rearranged our living
room and left a catfish reeking
in the jaws of the baby grand. (147)
Burdens and perspectives both Native American and African American are included--among them, this one by Sterling D. Plumpp, a blues poet, essayist, and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. In "Cartographer of Possibility," the blues indeed wind through his verse:
…Your blue interpretations
of pains inside mud floats
to conjure Wright's pen
that lashes those claimingownership over wealth you
give: Birds and the bees
sing a little blues for me.
You are a liquid station ofthe underground rail
road. In Memphis, they'd
stack slave upon slave
in secret hideaways…. (145)
Down to the Dark River is no easy, afternoon read. The poets' multi-layered delvings take time, and only with rumination do their poetic offerings provide their full "revealments of the river's marvelous eccentricities," to borrow an unforgettable phrase from Life on the Mississippi, chapter 24.
Revealments and lessons from the Mississippi can be found in any number of impressive poems and lines. Young cub-pilot Samuel Clemens, by concerted effort, came "to know all the million trifling variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well as I know the shape [in the dark] of the front hall at home" (Life on the Mississippi, chapter 8), a thing that had once seemed unimaginable to him. The poets of Down to the Dark River each strive to define and come to terms with the shapes encountered in their own darkened hallways.
Prefacing the book is a two-component Prologue, followed by an Introduction from the editors. In the Prologue, one finds "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," by Missouri-born Langston Hughes, the legendary African American poet, playwright, and activist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His poem voices a proud and resilient heritage:
I've known rivers:
I've known 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 heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans…. (xv)
Also in the Prologue is a piece entitled "Mississippi Mesostics: Meandering Through Mark Twain," constructed by Sue Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama from 2003 to 2012. Walker's mesostic--a form of poetry that quotes material from a prose source, inserts line-breaks, and then aligns selected letters along a vertical axis in order to emphasize those letters for the purposes of spelling out "hidden" words within the original text--adapts some phrases from chapter 4 of Life on the Mississippi. Her mesostic reveals: "MARK TWAIN WATER AMBITION STEAMBOAT" (xvi). One cannot help but wonder what other "secret messages" may be lurking in Mark Twain's works.
The Introduction from the editors is a skillful interweaving of lines and themes from each of the poets represented in the book, so if your time is limited, reading the Introduction provides a sort of "express" version of the book; but do not cheat yourself by stopping there. Get out into those headwaters, proceed to the shipping channel, and muscle your way to the Gulf. The full voyage through Down to the Dark River is well worth making, again and again.
Among the 100 poet-contributors to Down to the Dark River, over a dozen are current or former state Poets Laureate and two are former U.S. Laureates. The writers include Yusef Komunyakaa, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994; former U.S. Poets Laureate Ted Kooser and Natasha Trethewey; and Linda Pastan, a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement. But lesser known names--this volume seemingly the start of their ascents in the poetic realm--are also represented, such as Master's degree students Anna Beth Rowe and Marley Stuart. All pack a punch.
Another notable contributor is Margaret Britton Vaughn, Poet Laureate of Tennessee and a Quarry Farm Fellow. Forum members may recall meeting her at a past Elmira College conference and perhaps purchasing a signed copy of her poetry volume entitled, Foretasting Heaven: Talking to Twain at Quarry Farm.
The editors, Philip C. Kolin and Jack B. Bedell, have done a remarkable job in the face of what would seem, to mere mortal eyes, to be an unconquerable wall of poetic water from which to choose. Kolin is the University Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi where he also edits the Southern Quarterly. Bedell teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University where he edits Louisiana Literature and directs Louisiana Literature Press. The editors know their stuff, and the variety of voices and styles represented in Down to the Dark River--the editors' own poetic contributions included--make this book a challenging and mind-expanding read.
The existence of what appear possibly to be a few, very minor, typographical glitches--true errata, as distinguished from artistic license--does not preclude this reviewer from pronouncing this book's barrage of powerful poetry pitch-perfect from beginning to end.
The alphabetic arrangement of material, by the poets' surnames, results in a felicitous happenstance of A to Z. The book begins with a sunrise ("River Morning," by Ralph Adamo), and ends with a late afternoon "cocktail" of Mississippi and Yangtze "garnished with a cherry / of a river sunset" ("Confluence of the Two Rivers," by Jianqing Zheng). At the literal end of its poetic "day," the book has concluded its riparian journey with a cocktail glass raised in salute to the mighty metaphor that is the river in all its forms. In Down to the Dark River, Sam Clemens would feel right at home.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: M. L. Christmas, M.S.M., is a freelance writer/editor and occasional poet who has herself written contemporary verse about the Mississippi River and life along its banks. This is her fourteenth book review for the Mark Twain Forum.