River Stories, Storied Rivers

Robert Hass
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Though the names are still magic – Amazon, Congo, Mississippi, Niger, Platte, Volga, Tiber, Seine, Ganges, Mekong, Rhine, Colorado, Marne, Orinoco, Rio Grande – the rivers themselves have almost disappeared from consciousness in the modern world. Insofar as they exist in our imaginations, that existence is nostalgic. We have turned our memory of the Mississippi into a Mark Twain theme park at Disneyland. Our children don't know where their electricity comes from, they don't know where the water they drink comes from, and in many places on the earth the turgid backwaters of dammed rivers are inflicting on local children an epidemic of the old riverside diseases: dystentary, schistosomiasis, "river blindness." Rivers and the river gods that defined our civilizations have become the sublimated symbols of everything we have done to the planet in the last two hundred years. And the rivers themselves have come to function as trace memories of what we have repressed in the name of our technical mastery. They are the ecological unconscious.

So, of course, they show up in poetry. "I do not know much about gods," T. S. Eliot wrote, who grew up along the Mississippi in St. Louis, "but I think that the river is a strong brown god." "Under various names," wrote Czeslaw Milosz, who grew up in Lithuania along the Neman, "I have praised only you, rivers. You are milk and honey and love and death and dance." I take this to be the first stirrings, even as our civilization did its damming and polluting, of the recognition of what we have lost and need to recover. 

When human populations were small enough, the cleansing flow of rivers and their fierce floods could create the illusion that our acts did not have consequences, that they vanished downstream. Now that is no longer true, and we are being compelled to reconsider the work of our hands. And, of course, we are too dependent on our own geographical origins to have lost our connection with them entirely.

It may have been in Roman times that the Danube acquired its common name, since the Romans were great makers of maps, though it had probably been, long before any legions marched along its banks, a local god in many different cultures, with many different names. I knew of one poem, by the Belgrade poet Vasko Popa, that addresses Father Danube in a sort of Serbian modernist prayer:

O great Lord Danube
the blood of the white town
Is flowing in your veins
If you love it get up a moment
From your bed of love—
Ride on the largest carp
Pierce the leaden clouds
And come visit your heavenly birthplace
Bring gifts to the white town
The fruits and birds and flowers of paradise
The bell towers will bow down to you
And the streets prostrate themselves
O great Lord Danube

Rivers, of course, are like stories, and they are like stories that classical strictures on form would approve. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In between, they flow. Or would flow, if we let them. It's interesting to consider the fact that, in popular culture, in commercial television, what's happened to rivers has happened to stories. A dam is a commercial interruption in a river. A commercial is a dam impeding the flow of a story: it passes the human imagination through the turbine of a sales pitch to generate consumer lust.  

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Robert Hass is an American poet. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-97. He has been on the International Rivers Board of Directors since 1997.  This was excerpted from The Gift of Rivers: True Stories of Life on the Water (Travellers’ Tales, 2000). Read the full essay here