Black River

By Kenneth Sherman

A river is perhaps the most conventional of all poetic symbols, and almost certainly the longest lived. “riverrun” past Eve and Adam’s and irrigated all human literature. By the banks of Ontario’s Black River Kenneth Sherman hears the “high hollow whistling” through the branches of the massive willows and is transported in imagination to another Old Testament landscape:

Is that what the psalmist meant
by his ‘harps upon the willow’?


Those captives
weeping by the rivers of Babylon . . .

This music by and of the waters is a living tradition, one that Sherman fills with references to Jordan and Lethe and severed heads singing down the river to the sea (prefiguring modern types like Celan and Woolf – “Any river becomes black / when it drowns a poet”). The water sound is of continuity, not changelessness. What is eternal is the flow. As the familiar epigraph from Herakleitos has it, “Everything flow; nothing remains.” This river is not the Jordan and the water-strider is “not the Angel of Redemption” because the only redemption possible is “perhaps” in the very rush. Otherwise: Only water under the bridge: “no river flows backwards. / No river resuscitates its dead.” There is only the continuity of loss.

All around you, the discontinuous.
But you continue, dark river, while the gods
and goddesses
fall from the void like shredded texts –

Neither the gods nor their texts remain. Mere allusive “notes persist.” Everything flows.

A modern interpretation, then: The river as cable, the stream of data on (what used to be called) the information superhighway. Culture as stream, electronic current, flow. Can we be good poets without God? Can we have art without eternity? Is art even possible on the Internet, that “Dark Net” that parodies the Black River with its “vast, anarchic, pornography / of Gallup”:

But how to be God-centered
with Google, as if deadpan glass and hard-drive hum
could be any long-term consolation?
Lovely the way it flows onto the screen
though you are unlikely to download
Eden or Zion from this Net so easily accessed
and deluged with everyday demons.

Hypnotized by the lovely flow we hardly realize we are drowning. But we are. There are no gods but the gods of the Net. There is no form. No content. Only traffic. Only flow.

And dissolution of identity in the ocean of democracy. Which is where William Carlos Williams’s filthy Passaic emptied out too. Williams, however, saw that loss of identity as part of a cycle. His river is redeemed. Sherman’s final image of the “wake” is less hopeful. The river as a human life – the poet’s “inner river,” whose “bloody rivulets” mosquitoes drink – only runs down. As “wetware” the river fails to make the usual connections between the past (upriver) and the present (down), the subconscious (deep water) and consciousness (our perception of the surface). The past – “(ties, vests, bustles, corsets)” – is another river. Natives and nature have been displaced. History is just another shredded text:

Here memory is short-lived.
Shallow land, rock too close to surface.
And our river – an amnesiac:
her biography, mere movement.

Only flow. A flow of surfaces, because that is all we have time to notice. And it isn’t pretty.

The brackish surface
a deep bottle green breeding algae on the bleached banks,
cotton-like strands melting to slime
between trembling fingers.
Our horror ditch.

It’s not often in this book’s pared down verse that you get a line as rich in echoing sound as “a deep bottle green breeding algae on the bleached banks,” so when it arrives it forces you to note how the language mirrors the rotten fecundity of the polluted river. And then to follow it with such an exact and magically tactile image of the weird melting beauty of that pollution as it passes through a hand dipped in the water shows a rare touch indeed.

Black River is a masterful example of what can still be achieved in a long, meditative poem. Sherman takes the conventional image, and form, of the river and re-imagines it in language and thought that are thoroughly contemporary. Of course the cultural river will keep on flowing, sweeping all before it along with “Award-winning poets who can’t rhyme a line of verse. / And worse.” But one hopes that at least this text, these notes, will last.

Review first published online June 6, 2007.


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