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THE RIVER / Mike White (for Larry Levis) "In a word, as my life was a life of sorrow one way, so it was a life of mercy another . . ." —Robinson Crusoe As she turned her face toward the afternoon light Brimming through the half-drawn window blind— Her beauty a kind of raft for us then— I noticed, as if for the first time, a thin white scar Curving from eyebrow to her temple, and thought, In passing, if I could leave a scar like that, Faint as a small vessel burst deep in her mind, Or a phrase—a dialect—fierce, moored fast Against ascension to longing, its telling, the light Kindling the stacked, water-spotted glasses behind the bar . . . Soon the street lay sunken in a dusky cold, But for one high storefront window, caught viridescent . . . It was still enough, over the crack of melting ice, Over the soft rhythmic swell and flutter of the striped awning, I could believe I heard the tracks two blocks away Whisper of coal trains heaving up out of those hills . . . And the bar backed further still into its corner of the hotel Which, though older than any of ws, still sailed its sun-bleached nine floors into the full of the plains wind. But who slept there then?—for the veterans, ash-pale From the wards, would retire at bar's closing to the mezzanine, And listen simply, as in a nightlong trance, To the solitary black whore's heels crossing the marble lobby; And the strangers, and the sullen gray-eyed girl at the end of the bar The Missouri Review · 25 And I would sit wordless, watching nothing—the lucent evening wafting, southerly, from around the streetcorner— And gloried in it, drinking steady, as though hell itself Were slowly dissolving, drawn toward the early constellations— Drawn, and dissolved to a deep luster we'd turn from— Which yellow light, for all we knew, was the season's last, Since all our dreams were washed, that year, down the smoky blue streets, Swirling in wave upon glittering wave of sheeting rain, Swelling the leaf-choked, white limestone creekbeds, Spilling through fragrant orchards and gullied pastures, Beginning the long seepage through the black floodplain, Through the immense net of treeroots steeped In cold alluvial night, to the Missouri. And if we waited for the old hotel to rise and float off into the high stillness, If its brick facade lifted lightly as the neighborhood hawthorn lifts, In a glimpse of moon, unclenching its limbs for the wrens of daylight; And if we waited for all that town to rise and drift as it would, Like a long-held breath, like a drowsy scent in the tidal dark, We couldn't have been more patient. When I knew I was dying, Summer was rolling over my hills like the dust From the river road, raising foliage-shaped clouds, And painting the oak and water-elm groves at field's end white— Or so it looked from the river, one July day. I let a friend's canoe drift broadside now and again In rippling shallows, between mud shoals and the riverbank's 26 · The Missouri Review Mike White gray tangle of driftwood; And from Rocheport down past Providence I paddled toward any floating thing: A fragment of an old pier, I thought; and toward a snag's steady wake; A sudden mysterious thrashing below a sandbar; The soughing of a sycamore bent down, dragging its leaves in the current. And then came a low clearing: a stringer hung between two oaks Sagging with forty or more huge, glistening channel cat, And wreathes of cabin-smoke rose from somewhere, flattening over the mile-wide damasked river, And I struck for the other side. I pulled through the noonday heat, Past a jutting, dogleg dike—its lee edged with piled gray froth— And behind it, a limpid backwater pool, banked with cattails and bulrushes. And rounding a willow towhead, Where the canoe kept softly nudging and scraping the silt bottom, Where an eddy carried me circling slowly one way, then the other, Where a nearly whole and still-green birch tree broke surface just beside...


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