Saturday, January 31, 2004


Off the south bank of the Charles River at the small dam just east of the footbridge there is an astonishing cleft in the water. It seems a wonder and a paradox that onrushing fluid can present with something as apparantly static as a hole. It looks like someone has pickaxed a wedge right out of the water. It is the obverse of a standing wave. Stasis in motion.

But, after all, what is a river ?

From childhood, I've carried a sense that a river is, above all, treacherous: dark water, full of hidden perils, with powerful currents set to sweep a person away. Unfathomable, malign darkness and power. Something alive and dangerous.

One day I had a revelation. I think I was driving into Boston on one of the two parkways that parallel the Charles. The roads -- Memorial Drive and Storrow -- are busy, sinuous, congested, and, in spots, quite close to the river. Catastrophizers like myself can't help picturing our car wiping out on a curve and sailing into the river. Although I confess that in decades of living near Boston, I've never once heard of anyone doing so. (Storrow Drive is mostly notorious for truckers who ignore the posted height restrictions and get their rigs wedged under its low bridges.)

So one day I was driving and catastrophizing and suddenly I found myself mentally dissecting the river: I drained it. And realized that what was left was simply a ditch. Across which I could stroll. Ditch, water, motion. Somehow that act of reduction and abstraction diminished the river's menace.

I have no doubt that, under the upstream Charles River water's cleft, is a cloven stone.

Just as I have no doubt that the person who was led to the House of Toast today by a Yahoo search on "pictures+of+vaginas+from+girls+ages+11-16" was disappointed.

I would like to find a mental operation to diminish my distress at the thought of someone doing that search. To drain the notion of its onrushing, predatory sexual implication. To reduce it to dry ditch and flat fluid. But I can't. I can't conjure up a staid, disinterested anatomist as author of that search string. Someone wants to look. Maybe to have. Please, not that. I think of a camera's disinterested eye opening; of the prurient gaze behind it. Of violation. Trespass. Force.

To what can I reduce this, then ?

Desire. Restless, fluid, meandering. Taking the form of its submerged topographies. Admixed with strange elements, it churns up into froth.

Desire and revulsion, two eddies, clockwise and counterclockwise.

Canoeing on the Saco River in Maine: two memories from my first marriage.

On the first trip, it is cold and damp. Overcast, with intermittant mist. The river is deep and fast. I am new to this, and afraid. We are navigating a narrow stretch of river where the banks' branches overhang. Fallen branches and stumps just below the dark surface reach up, scrape the boat, threaten to overturn it. I stare at the oncoming water, terrified. Hands, grabbing for me.

On the second trip, it is warm and bright. Summertime. The river is crowded with canoers. There is an atmosphere of celebration and happiness. The water is clear, the bottom is clean and sandy. In places it is so shallow the boat scrapes the bottom. Seven months pregnant, I step out of the canoe and splash in the warm, calm water. It ripples around my ankles.

How wholesome.

That day was the first time I ever had heartburn, from greasy chicken we devoured on the drive home. My copy of Adrienne Rich's Poems, Selected and New 1950-1974 is moldy and watermarked from the dip in the river it took that day. I take it out and I notice that, on its cover, there's a picture of green water falling over green rock. The cover is creased, the page edges curl.

Does everyone have secrets ? Secret wishes, secret appetites. Secret fantasies. Shameful secrets, kept contained between banks.

The river overflows its banks, sweeps the children away.

And who is that carefree mother-to-be splashing in the placid, August river ?

No comments: