By Kim Hambright, assistant editor, The Fourth River
The Mississippi River proclaims itself to be “the Father of Rivers,” “the heart of remembrance,” “Mark Twain’s classroom,” “a hideaway for ballads,” and “the darkest place on earth” (Kolin). The third longest river in North America symbolizes resilience, with a history as long and storied as the length of its shores. Flowing for more than 2,300 miles, the Mississippi borders or travels through ten of the fifty United States, though it impacts residents in far more. In the book Down to the Dark River: Contemporary Poems about the Mississippi River, one hundred poets explore their own inseparability from this dynamic river of life and death. Published in 2016 by Louisiana Literature Press and edited by Philip C. Kolin and Jack B. Bedell, Down to the Dark River situates the reader within the culture of the river itself, in the midst of a story nearing 200 pages, in which the river plays the protagonist, antagonist, and foil.
The prologue of Down to the Dark River opens with Langston Hughes’s influential poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and immediately the book commands the reader’s attention. We prepare ourselves for richly lyrical and evocative poetry, and Down to the Dark River doesn’t disappoint. In Twyla M. Hansen’s poem, she provides a “Geography Lesson” of this great river, introducing us to the culture all its own:
“We began at the Gulf, pointing on the map
where the Mississippi becomes the sea,
tracing its wide fingers upward and out.”
The poems within the book vary greatly from one another in terms of form, tone, setting, and subject, though one constant remains. The recurring image of the river ebbs and flows through these works of poetry like their bloodlines, unifying and humanizing them. An advisement in Bruce Bond’s poem says it best:
“Prepare to voodoo your way, best you can,
knowing there is a little water in things
you take for granted.”
Many of the poems in this collection pay tribute to the Mississippi River as a vital life source, praising the water, fish, and stones for their part in the seemingly eternal cycle of life. In Richard Broderick’s poem “Let us Gather By the River,” the speaker awes at the powerful consistency of the river and “the stones down here / [that] never tire of parting the water.” He describes a relationship of trust and mutual respect between the Mississippi and the lives surrounding her, admiring the harmony of it all. However, the power of the Mississippi demands to be noticed, and just as the river brings life, it also brings death:
“Because the fish that just jumped
disappears into the same circle
it made by leaping” (Broderick).
The contributors to Down to the Dark River make no excuses for the Mississippi; the river that nourishes lives also yanks them away. In “Taken by the River,” William Greenway illustrates the grim reality for the crew of a sunken tugboat. The lines, “One man was saved alive, … and one was taken / by the river” reinforce the power of the water system and the delicate boundary between life and death. Still, the river offers no forgiveness for the man “eaten by the Mississippi / catfish by now, / and small salt monsters.” The Mississippi River is no stranger to devastation; however, she plays the victim as often as the predator. In Mary Ruth Donnelly’s poem “Katrina Still,” the river personifies a woman who’s altered permanently as a result of the storm. Themes surrounding the memory and impact of Katrina weave consistently throughout the book with the common discussion of power and resilience.
For the contributing poets of Down to the Dark River, the Mississippi provides a means for transportation, communication, and evacuation. It embodies a husband, a grim reaper, a measure in time, and a “dividing line” (Mitchell). To these 129 poems, the Mississippi River offers a common thread. With images spanning pre-colonial Native American reservations to the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Down to the Dark River unifies the voices of some of the greatest contemporary poets into a song of admiration, fear, and praise for the Mississippi River. In the words borrowed from Sheryl St. Germain’s “Mississippi: A Love Song,” “First, / you learned how to spell her, singing” and now, “you can’t imagine how / song could be separated from this … river / that birthed you.”
Kim Hambright is an assistant editor for The Fourth River and an MFA candidate in poetry at Chatham University