Before that way, there were others. Everywhere a place where you were not or I was not. Where did it begin, these bottles set off on the open sea? Like s.o.s, like the telegram once delivered—streets filled with water stop please advise stop—, like flashlights pulsing windows across a wide open field. Like flares. Paper folded & slipped beneath a door. A plea, sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes postage stamp, onion-skin airmail envelope; sometimes telephone wires stretching a country, sometimes satellite. Sometimes no words at all just echoed mile after mile, ocean after ocean, smalling state lines grown wider, grown longer. From much of everywhere, sometimes alone, sometimes not, but most of all from living rooms in the leaning-over towns we’ve written where we’ve lived. Always there.
Tell me what you are seeing & so it began—the record of how I learned to see: quarried—in marble, in granite—stone I laid down for you to make a path through where you weren’t. Because the days were urgent: even when they wandered or wandered away—got lost in the maze of some medieval city—fear crept in. Not long before, a river had torn into all of that beauty. & when hadn’t there been an army at the walls? Brushstroked, chiaroscuroed, or arching above me at a holy height, that city rendered me mute: that it was there & how easily it might not be.
So, the river was a way to Here. To say now rather than someday you should. Or to say nothing. Was a way to be & at once & in an instant. & what we crossed or drove alongside, what was named that we mouthed back into those days well-lit, winding country-roaded, sometimes thirsty: our river of many names. Pope Creek. Edwards River. Rock River. Old Man at Bettendorf, Iowa. The Wapsipinicon. Prairie Creek. The Maquoketa. The North Fork Maquoketa. Old Man at Dubuque. That Signless Creek near Tennyson, Wisconsin. Potosi Creek. The Wisconsin. Bad Axe Creek. The La Crosse. The Black. The La Crosse. The La Crosse. The Little La Crosse. The Trempeleau. The Buffalo. The Chippewa.
From the Waldorf-Astoria, the hotel of princesses, New York still a wound. From that room where all I could write was, The height. All these ledges. After the Guggenheim, after walking miles on an island I forget is an island, after the blockades at the U.N., the hole in the skyline, that still unwhole sky… on the flight back, just before a holiday, everyone crowding toward home, the landing gear didn’t come down. How I replay it all for you as if—. & what I only hear years later, what turns metaphor: sometimes an airplane will keep circling to empty its fuel tanks so it doesn’t catch fire when it is forced to crash land. What I finally hear: Empty the fuel tank to lessen the disaster.
Old Man at Hannibal, Missouri, at the shoreline. Signless River below Quincy, Illinois. Signless River below Nauvoo, Illinois. Signless River below Nauvoo, Illinois. Camp Creek. Weaver Creek. Dugout Creek. South Henderson Creek. Signless River. Signless River. Signless River.
Or, if not quite mute, inarticulate. Shut out, language turned on me, turned more music than I’d ever known, & so I turned into its wind. Into cadence & inflection, shrug of shoulder, tilt of head, angry fist. Nothing didn’t need translation. I mean, it was all I did: hunt & peck for the sound that could signify. I mean, it was all I did: try to find new words for shock, for awe. Even our mouths invaded. To name it all for you meant I am here. This is here, despite it all.
The Cannon. The Cannon. Lake Pepin, from the other side. The Whitewater. Trout Creek.
Old Man at La Crescent, Minnesota. Old Man at Goose Island Landing, Wisconsin. Old Man at Lansing, Wisconsin. The Yellow. The Turkey.
Or, from that always there, what there was to say: the crows have returned. Against this blue-skied day, their many hundreds of wings flapping sound like rain. In bare trees, they turn leaf.
Or, from always there: how I’d stopped even going to the window, the sound of the snow plow scraping its way down my street regular enough to keep time. Both of us buried deep, as we say, slipped under the inches turned feet that kept coming on. I won’t say it didn’t feel like a metaphor, but we, neither of us, had to say it.
Or, from always there: I thought I knew trains, but now when they come through town I hear streets rushing with water. Flood, that sound.
The Maquoketa. Prairie Creek. The Cedar. The Wapsipinicon. Crow Creek. The Iowa. The Iowa. The Iowa. The Iowa. The Skunk. Lost Creek. The Des Moines. The Fox. Sugar Creek.
What I saw anywhere is what I could see anywhere—you’re the one who knows how to be in a place as that place, not as everywhere—until what I saw & had to figure out & how to show you: sandbags piled up, mile after mile. The river lapping up road. & the horizon’s stretched-out-forever. That one barn, hollowed out. Or that other one. How the sky turned river. How everything turned river, & there, where the river nearly emptied out. All those close to holy places I’d never have seen without needing to remember them enough to get them down for you.
Or, to cross the Falls at St. Anthony, to stand above them in the dark so dark it felt like falling. In our year where every single thing felt like falling. In our year of dark so dark, your saying, I know you promised me I’d never have to fish you out, but for the record, if you slip…months later made a stillness unexpected. Months later snow just as we were pulling away.
Honey Creek. Buck Run Creek. The Wyaconda. Linden Branch. Dungers Creek. The Illinois. Walnut Creek. Seminary Creek. Apple Creek. The Macupin. Old Man at Alton, Illinois.
Or, from always there: winter, again.
Or, from the roof of the Met, one of the few places where that city doesn’t bend me backwards, I watched men bind bamboo into a sort of scaffold—ramps & ladders they inched along into the sky we still can’t not see as somehow emptied, gaping. A throwback, the image so strangely like those Modern photographs of welders dangling from skyscrapers over that same city, I had to tell you: we don’t know where we can live. There are still places we can learn to live.
Or, from always there: a new bridge finished over so much not-water. O, almost-city of almost. Another bridge crossing the river of trains, that river that crosses more country than our dear Old Man. A whole season later, & from any angle, stacked-up bricks from a fire that burned off most of a building I loved. Even this unsalvageable might be saved. Remember on the shore in Minneapolis the burned-out mill turned museum? All our museums of wreck & wreckage, our museums built up & framed. From all we’ve lost we’ll find our way out.
The Missouri. Amburster Creek. Little Saline Creek. Saline Creek. Tyler Branch. Apple Creek. Little Apple Creek. Ramsey Branch. Ramsey Creek. Ramsey Creek. Ramsey Creek. Signless Creek at mile 64, I-55. St. John’s Bayou. Portage Open Bay. Signless Creek at Mile 16, I-55. Unnamed Creek after entering Arkansas. Old Man over the Old Bridge. Old Man over the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Old Man in Memphis, Tennessee. The Wolf. The Wolf River Harbor.
At Mud Island we walked backward into another time: carriages like pumpkins, lit up, horse-driven; ghosts oiling their muskets, straightening their uniforms & the General coming toward us as we walked sometimes knee-deep in the miniature river in the river; near empty highways of a city so thirsty weeks later they’d all but close it down. But how green this always-place seemed, all of a sudden and for just those hours.
& later, heading back: Fish Lake. Big Lake Bayou. Old Man, somewhere in Missouri. Old Man, everywhere in Missouri. Old Man at Cairo, Illinois. The Ohio at Cairo, Illinois. Old Man at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, over the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Ramsey Creek. Ramsey Creek. Ramsey Creek. Ramsey Branch. Little Apple Creek. Apple Creek. Tyler Branch. Saline Creek. The Little Saline Creek. River Aux Vases Creek. Establishment Creek. Signless River at Pevely, Missouri. Signless at Weldon Spring. Dardenne Creek. Cuivre River. Galley Branch. Peno Creek. Spencer Creek. Bear Creek. The Salt.
Or, from always there: from the donation site at the Women’s shelter, the top of a new mural backlit by sky & then a crumbling brick blue-paint-peeling building with a corner of windows—how together they made a whole new horizon—& in that gravel lot, on this overcast grey day, Where are you?
You are in it—the mural. That’s what Rothko said; though, I didn’t know he’d said it. Not in London, not in New York, not in D.C. I didn’t know it in Houston, where the sky is never overcast enough. I waited for a cloud, to see his last paintings as he’d have wanted me to. Now, when anyone asks, how could we explain? Such pilgrimages. To paint a small picture won’t do: it will place you outside your experience. When asked, I say as little as possible: enormous & silent & holy. When asked, I say, This country is so big. When asked, I don’t know what to say except what you’d understand: the paintings like the river from some lookout off the shoulder of a back road in the far north in the dead of night.
Although most of London was a small hotel room—me flattened out & the not-quite-yet-One trying to hold on—I couldn’t get warm. One of the few times I ventured out, I begged the Tate Modern. After Twombly. After Rothko. After standing where you’d stood. After, how I pressed to the slab floor of Turbine Hall, pressed back to that ground—Londoners bundled up for December, the flash mob of Santas strolling over the Thames—beneath that sky-not-sky, that sun-not-sun, but more sun than any I’d ever know.
Or from always there: the once-expansive yard turns hospital, as if overnight. Now the life-flight helicopter lands. Now the windows lit in a building of just barely. Of not quite. Of little chance. If there’s metaphor there, we chose to ignore it.
So, from what they once called the hyphen, or from the Hilton in Times Square or from a cabin on the coast of Lake Michigan, Door County, Wisconsin, or just off Victoria Station in London. From a hospital waiting room in Upstate New York after driving all night, or a hotel in Asheville after that fire, or some roadside Holiday Inn in Missouri, or another lost night in Minnesota. From a Hyatt in D.C., on the day we invaded Afghanistan, or a Hyatt in Virginia, or a Hyatt in Baltimore, in Atlanta. Mostly hotel rooms, mostly somewhere. Mostly hotel rooms where I wanted, mostly, just to die. & when I didn’t want I’d send up a signal from a Green Mountained horizon in Montpelier, or every nowhere in Indiana, or those wandering days in Chicago, the plushier rooms, snow falling or not, or from an el platform, or from the gallery of the new Modern Wing—staring out at the Gehry, that other city where we love everything. From airports & train stations, car parks & rest stops & just off the highway, to keep listening. Might it soothe all that water chaps raw. Ease our smallness, our slipping in & out so quickly.
We were always listening, even when quiet between us grew into two-laned blue lines stretching state borders to The Leaf. The Redeye. The Wing. The Blueberry. The Fish Hook. The Straights. Elk Lake. Lake Itasca.
So from screened porches, from cluttered desks, from the slanting shades of dusk in a room where we used to sit. From islands—across lakes, across straights, across oceans, across sounds. From South Street, from Cliffside, from Avenue & Court & Place, from Cherry, from Prairie, from Beecher. From rooms looking down on to piazzas named for flowers, for martyrs, for generals, for saints. From rooms looking down on the Liffey, on the Thames, on the Arno, on the Ouse. Against the Platte, the Potomac, the Missouri, the Colorado. On the Arkansas, the Iowa, the Hudson, the Kalamazoo, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Mississippi, the Mississippi—. So those windows—& the words? A stay, maybe. A way to stay. Against the flowing & flown.
No here too far that the post can’t find us. That the tapped-out code is obscured. No matter, I’ll hear you. That promise as sure as any flood, any drought, any road buckled or repaved or unmapped. That promise as sure as the spirit’s lake. The lake across which the current flows diagonally. The place where it flows deep. The river that flows through the narrow constricted place. In the fish trap. At the white poplar place. At the cut steep sand banks. At the place of artichokes. At the long reach of the river.
Nods of thanks & acknowledgement here to Rand McNally, Jamie Jensen’s Road Trip USA: Great River Road, The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, The Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center & the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center at Itasca State Park, St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, Mud Island River Park, & the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Also thanks to James Wright, Ralph Angel, George Oppen, Nancy Eimers, Elizabeth Bishop, Dean Young, Robert Benchley, Olafur Eliasson, Mark Rothko, & Danielle Kimzey.