The River





A great bronze god
This morning
Swollen and muddy,
Slowly silting down,
Muscles rippling like some
Giant water stallion,

Moving past Broadway, past Elm
Past the geese at the floating marina
Past the stacks of the monolithic power plant
Past all the bare and sunken trees
To list round the bend at Hanover,
Moving his way on down to Louisville,
New Albany, Evansville, Memphis, Cairo, Mississippi!
Carrying the weight of thousands of lives.

The dead are with him as well as the living:
Dead logs and dead bones,
The ghosts of those who perished in his flood
In their perilous leap toward freedom,
Ferried long ago from Milton’s shore
Or Indian Kentuck by reckless boatmen,
Indiana Charons rowing their dark
breathing freight
to Elysium.


The beginnings and endings
Of all things tucked
Within your liquid furrows,
Your deep rollings,
As church bells toll you
On your cyclic way
to a shared oblivion:
Hart Crane’s great wink of eternity,
Whitman’s mighty I-am-Thou
Shine with the sun
On your burnished surface
Issuing forth vague promise
Of some hidden covenant to come,
Some secret bargain
With forces unknown;
And one day all will be revealed
As the prophet saith
When the weight of all this water
Unseen and teeming
With life and death
Comes at last to rest
In the dropless one-time silent sea.


Sepia, tintype plate,
Placid and unmoved;
Only sometimes the skin
Seems to move slightly northeast
By five mile per hour winds; so unlike
That sparkling diamond sheet of yesterday
Afternoon — light leaping and dancing through
Scrimshaw branches of bare trees,
Dazzling in its jeweled brilliance.

A barge loaded with coal moves upstream
To points northward, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh perhaps
While a white toy car speeds along the Kentucky shore
Gliding past a red-roofed boat house
Each day as much a part of this riverscape as
The fish who breathe and breed beneath her many-tonned surface :
Dark fish with muddy eyes that click like camera lens
Through murk to see all that moves in their way
From shore to shore deep down to dark sandy bottom.


The names of spots
from Pittsburgh to Cairo
from a 1922 river chart :

Pittsburgh, Point Bridge, Cables Eddy Light,
Deep Run, Round Bottom, Pig Run, Big Run,
Fish Creek, Ice Creek, Independence Landing,
Hockhocking, Long Reach, Big Broad Creek,  Swans Landing . . .

Spots known to the pilots
who must know by heart
each sandy shoal and
high or low bar, each outcrop
each crook of land,
each sunken tree
and pool of purling
demon water :

Kanawha, Wild Cat Hollow,
Quaker Bottom, Big Sandy, Long Lick Run,
Fish Gut, Logans Gap, Great Miami,
Big Bone, Vevay Island, Indian Kentuck,
Crooked Creek, Big Six, Saluda Reach,
Big Squaw, Bear Bone, Grassy Flats. . .

Spots known to
the north and south
bank dwellers
the john-boaters
the bottom farmers
the tide combers
the river folk
whose lives are shaped
by the ebb and flow of
currents always moving,
always shifting through time :

Cape Sandy, Duck Run, Puppy Creek Dike,
Bee Slough, Bayou Creek, Beggarman Landing,
Wabash, Trumbo Ditch, Shawneetown Rocks,
Big Hurricane Island, Irish Jimmy Bar,
Cumberland, Cottonwood, Tennessee River,
Grand Chain, America — Cairo Point. . .

These names
Contain a buried
A tragi-comic history
In the commas
That separate them;
The mystery and majesty
of the forgotten,
Always living,


Great brown earth mover,
silt-shifter, shaker of clay,
breaker of rocks, carver of valleys,
transporter of blossoms and catkins
blown down to your back on the wind
to be cast up and planted somewhere
else a hundred miles downstream :
you are eternal motion, an ancient cyclotron
whose movements appear one-way
to the unseeing eye that always
assumes a surface reality to seen things.
But for you, great nourishing goddess,
there is no surface reality :–
all things pass into and out of you,
move under you and through you
and you bring a terrible splendor
to things mortal and immortal,
things seen and unseen.
Right now there is a white moth
riding a log down your speeding stream
slipping its way into a distant spring
where she will drink the joy
of a thousand wild flowers;
right now there is a woman
with luminous wings riding the waves
of your shimmering surface scattering
purple and white wild-grass flowers
along your greening banks
that soon will dream away
in the slumber of golden summer.


Do fish know they live under water?
Do humans know they walk on air?

The ground that is not beneath our feet
is meaningless, has no existence :

being as it is made up of vast interstices
gaps of nothingness of space between

the spinning protons
the orbiting neutrons

the quirky electrons, the quarks and
subatomic showers of infinite molecular space :

is all Maya, a veil of illusion
that flits across our vision-screens

between the dawn and dusk
of our little lives, our being-here

which is all a temporal dream
or nightmare, depending

upon how much of the divine
is kept alive within that tight shell

that surrounds your snug
skeleton which is mostly air

which ascends to air
when your days here are done.

Where then is comfort
in this conundrum?

where solace in knowing this?
where the hug and kiss of bliss?

It is within you; the real you
that walks on air, the Christ-enlightened

You, the tight-rope-walking
Bhudda-You aware

of the waking nightmare
that was your life, aware

that something essential deep down there
is alive in joy forever

is infinite communion
with the source and mouth of the river

that flows ceaselessly
through the north and south of your soul

the east and west of your heart
the back and forth of your mind’s eye

over and under your empty body
where all things ceaselessly flow

up and down, back to and from
the one-time, dropless, endless sea of infinity

where the souls of fishes swim aware
with the souls of women and men and deer

and all creatures ever caught in this snare here
all know the net-less element they now swim in :

the joyous, timeless, all-knowing river of eternity.


Featured Photograph:  Indiana Sunset  by  Bernie Kasper
Walking the bridge has become the new pastime for many downtown Madison Indiana residents.  It is a photographer’s dream location with so many fascinating subjects you are able to capture, from the power plant to the barges and boats that navigate the river below. — Bernie Kasper

As a poet, I am fascinated by the metaphysical, mystical, and metaphorical nature of rivers in general and the Ohio River at Madison in particular.  From my home, high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River and downtown Madison, I am able to experience the daily changes in the relationships and moods of the river.  Our lives are rivers of events and encounters, floods and lulls, twists and turns on the way to the one-time drop-less sea of eternity.


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