Flow by Beth Kephart

flow
.
By Ray Greenblatt
.
  This is a little book (109 pages): the typical length of a poetry collection. 79 short prose pieces capture the history of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. However, the author’s powerful poetics reveal themselves on every page. Following the rough chronological order, let us observe the river’s interaction with man.

.

      PRELUDE. This section gives an overview of the river’s history. “It bent the reflection of the moon, then held it still. A man looked in, a woman did, then held it still.”
 “It will course many miles more and take a turn through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware River, which will empty into a long-nosed bay before yielding to the sea.”
 “The river is cumulative. It harbors the floating oddments of towns like Auburn, Reading, Birdsboro, and Valley Forge.”
 “There is dust in its waters, the churn of bones.”
 “You might find the cross-frame of a kite in its silt, or the last page of a diary, or the buckle of a soldier’s shoe, or the chunky afterthought of anthracite.”
“That’s the thing about this river. You have to imagine to see.” (9)
          After industrialization things changed. “The river had turned the color of mud, the color of the noise on city streets. But a river stands for something even after the silence is gone.”
“There are other stories, big as myths. A river still begins at covert springs, and it still flows out to sea. It still floats the moon on its back at night, still stares out at the faces staring in, still dreams.” (11)
.
          RISING. Instead of the author speaking, Kephart personifies the river so that it thinks and feels.  “Blueback herring and eel, alewife and shad muscle in to my wide blue heart, and through.”
“Were there language, I’d be my own lone letter.” (16)
.
         BEAR. “He is besieged by smells. The curls inside leaves. The green cracking the earth. The beginning of berries.”
“The moon is high, it is afloat—yellow and generous as fruit.” (17)

.

GANSHOWAHANNA. That is the Lenape name for the Schuylkill, which means falling waters. “The sky is theirs: The hunter after the bear, the Thunderers and Horned Serpent of last night’s storm, and the souls on the long, white trail—rising.” (18)

          FLIGHT. The Lenape fish for the sturgeon, which seem to have the ability to fly. “Turning my surface the color of purpose—of fish backs and of the floating, painted man whose spear points down from the sky.”
“His hair swims away from him like so many black minnows.” (20)

 

          SWARM.  The wildlife was so abundant. “Pompous pheasants, the swans were absurdly full of themselves. Had you asked me, I would have called for an interregnum of birds.” (22)

          TEMPTATION. “I was another country then. I was temptation. And what precisely lay to my west? What lay beyond my falls?” (23)

          ICE STORM. “You want to blame me for how we together broke apart, abandoned the little rules we each lived by. You want me implicated in the fracture of time, in my viscous letting loose, my rising.”
“That moan you heard was my soul in repeated shatters. That cleaving apart was my remorse.” (24) This passage takes on a mythic quality that American writers have used like Barry Lopez and Joy Harjo.
.
          COMET. “If I am envious of anything, it is of those who might ascend and watch as the stars settle in upon my scrim. To see myself from above myself, in the iris black on night.”
“The night sliding forward and the sky antique, and suddenly (though it must have been there before) a comet. Ice for its head. Dust and ions in the seeming whoosh of its aftermath. The smell of methane and ammonia and burn.” (26)
.
         SKATING PARTY. Notice how Kephart employs word repetition and a series of phrases not only to suggest gliding over the ice but also to intensify the continuous flow of the river. “Imagine taking a needle to the point of blood on your palm. Imagine drawing that needle around and around, leaning in on it, forcing an edge, tearing at the creases and the lifelines, the ridges and slightest hills that forecast your happiness. Imagine the skin giving way. That’s skating.” (32)
.
          FORT MIFFLIN. Here is a dead Revolutionary War soldier. “He is lying on his back in the mud and seeing every star that hangs above me as a hole in the sky, a piercing. His lungs are smoke. His arms are emptied and hollow.”
This is an impression of General Washington. “But already his pockets are bloodied with the talismans of lost men, with the buttons from their uniforms, with letters written home. Already his lungs are vapors.” (36)
.
          INDEPENDENCE. What it might feel like when the Revolutionary War is over. “It was one of those effulgent days. Everything seemed touched by the intimation of precious metal—platinum on the limbs of trees, silver in the tips of flowers, gold glinting.”
“Wind rush and weather. Eyes that actually see. A body attuned to
 the physics of life and weight, thrust and drag.” (37)

 .

         FOLLY. Over the years drownings occurred in the river. “Many years, a drowning. A body dashed into my white spit. Bones sunk down with the calculus of catfish and of beaver, with turtle shells and the bright gold ring that marks the unmade promise.” (39)

.          SOUL How the death of Benjamin Franklin affected the river.  “The difference between a man’s soul and a cumulus cloud is that the cloud rubs out of its own accord and a man’s soul never does. Yesterday, Benjamin Franklin died after a year of suffering, and his soul has already risen, its color the color of sun through leaf. There’s an eccentric quiver in the air, a strange disruption, and the idle talk along my banks is of him.” (43)

          UNPLUGGED. The river begins to be channeled by builders into pipes. “When they gush me on, when they yank me off. I am slivered into tears. I die of boredom in their buckets.”
“A young girl named Annie, who, tending a garden, chooses me. Pours me into a long-spouted can, carries me over her arm, and transports me out to the birds of paradise, the violet petals and sweet peas, the bath that has been drawn up for the swallows. Where I am let free. Where the sun is familiar and I transcend my usefulness.” (47)

.

          NAVIGATION. “I was a fist, a scourge, a seductress—pulling stones and sludge through their grinding gears, making sounds they couldn’t account for, flooding them out where veins were cut.” (54)

          HAVEN. Some people as this one woman are attuned to the river. “She is keen to the hidden craving in all things: the yearning tucked inside the songs of birds, the unconfessed regrets of men, the permanent rage of an unfinished fire.” (55)

          ASYLUM. Disabled seamen are comforted by the river. “He’ll smell more like smoke than good breeding, and his lips will be pale and chewed into; his nose will have been burnished by the sun. The songs will come out the barrel of his chest. His stories will be for nobody but me.” (62)

          WASTE. The following sentence imitates a flood, with even a hint of rhyme to keep the flow. “Nothing would stay in its place; nothing was fixed. The bulbs of the trees, the piers, the docks, the locks, and the canal masters’ houses, the soft hats and vests of the masters, their dinner plates and tablecloths, the barges, the names of the barges, the Conshohocken Bridge and the Flat Rock Bridge, the keys that opened the doors to the mills, the mills, the equipment in the mills, the columns of smoke that puffed out of the mills.” (68)

          RESPECTS. The river commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s death. “The bells had pealed so long they’d become the weather, and the horses that had passed—with riders in their saddles or carriages dragged behind them—had been keeping their heads low.  The wharves had been blackened, and also the boats, and there were bolts of black unfurled from the windows in the buildings all up and down my banks. Above the dam, where spring had already set in, the bushes and the birds were somber. The machines, for the most part, had stopped—the ambush of noise from factories.” (70)

          STEAM. A locomotive is described. “At this hour the night seems intoxicated, the tinted lanterns swinging in some late-shift tune and the men passing through the bilious smoke above the tracks—passing through and disappearing. They’ve left on the eyes of the locomotives. They’ve left them breathing there—each so much bigger than a bear, so much blacker than the panther whose footprints are sunk in deep beneath those tracks, whose eyes needed only the moon for ignition. I can no longer tell you where the owls have gone. I can’t explain what a night alone is.” (76) The reader begins to feel the burden put upon the river, that once pure flowing water.

          ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS. Philadelphia had the first zoo in the country but at what cost. “The noise is killing—the hysterical chatter and proximate screams of animals slowly being robbed of their opinion. Last night lightning seared the underbelly of the sky and thunder moved in loud and fast. It would go from dark to a sick, pale green, then flame straight back to nothingness, and all I could think of were the cinnamon bears at the dancing poles, so far from wherever it was that they had come from. Suddenly I knew what is worse than having needs you cannot speak, and that is this: having no faith in being answered.” (78)

          KATHERINE ROWS. The first rowing club, eventually for women too, was formed in Philadelphia. “She favors the idea of the continuous. The continuous glide. The unobstructed move through time. The going on of my own self and soul—strong as a man, she says to me, and fluid as a mother’s song.” (80)
“Pulls the oars through the chokes, fastens the gates, and settles her heart. She plants her feet in the stretchers and oars her way out, her back facing forward. Shoulders to the sky, Katherine. Knees at an angle. Catch and drive and always finish. Feather the blades so you’ll fly. She leaves her hair loose, a dark burst about her face. She lets the breeze into her blouse. She listens to me and what I have to say, and she goes and she goes and she goes.” (81) Again, the author is very effective making the reader feel movement on the river.

 

          SUPPURATING. Historically by the nineteenth into the twentieth century the river is severely polluted. “It is the worst of you sloughed off into me—your refuse and oddments, your savage toxins and dross, your slicks that do not sink, your dirty yeast, your wrong-colored wools and the dyes that wronged them. How is it that I became the quickest route to your confession—the door you close to those parts of your self that you hope no one will see? Call me what you’ve made me, which is a grave. Plant me a tombstone.” (89)

          ABIDING. Poetry can forcefully vivify the ugliness as well as the beauty around us. “You wouldn’t call it survival. All that time living with what became my own stench, my insufferable loneliness. All that time, forsaken. You turned your backs on me. You robbed me of my dignity and birdsong, of fat-fisted flowers and azalea springs. Mostly you robbed me of the idea of myself as a river, for what is a river but a conduit between spring and sea, a womb for underwater things, a chance of transcendence, and what did you make of me but a trough of shame, a festering disease you would not cure?  So that even the moon avoided me and my stories went dry as a bone and I was too clotted to see.” (92)

          LOVE. And yet in the twenty-first century there is hope. The return of the otter signifies the beginning of a return of wildlife to the river. “He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, with his dark pelt and his well-groomed ears, the sterling glimmer of his whiskers. He was audacious, bold, spectacularly witty, and when he looked at me he was looking into me, he was knowing my heart and all the places it has been to. He was not afraid of my complicated language, not afraid of my needs, not afraid of all that sinks or floats or ends with me. The bones in me, which are also seeds. The dust of distant life. The stories I carry, the color of my dreams, the weight of my confessions.” (108)

Beth Kephart is a published poet and prose writer; in this book FLOW she has finely balanced her skills. It must have taken much reading and research to immerse herself in the history of the Schuylkill River. By using many poetic devices, especially imagery, she has been able to magically don the persona of the river itself and bring it truly to life.

 You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Times-Philadelphias-Schuylkill-River-ebook/dp/B00ECK9XF2

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

 

 

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s