In Which I Forgive the River
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
Parable, fable, fairy tale: when a moralist wishes a lighter touch than your typical sermon or tirade, lighter even than allegory, she resorts to stealthier forms of persuasion, familiar to the child in each of us. Charlotte Muse is such a moralist, and her new volume, In Which I Forgive the River, displays her disarming skills. Rummaging in the psyche’s basement, she offers stories and characters which remind us of Aesop and Ovid, the Grimm brothers, Marianne Moore.
Consider “The Man Who Loved a Pig,” a title which might put you in mind of Galway Kinnell’s St. Francis or maybe Gene Wilder in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex. But the directness and simplicity of the language bespeak a narrator who resembles a village idiot or fairytale fool, shy, self-conscious, smitten. “It has been my good fortune to fall in love,” he tells us, with a sow, “sweetly fat and bristled, / gloriously unselfconscious.” Meeting her, his “rusty heart creaked open.” He knows it is odd, he knows he will be judged, but he cannot forget the moment when she “thrust her flat nose into my palm / so I felt the tropic winds of her breath.” One surmises that his life until then had been cold, frozen. What does he care that freedom comes in this unexpected form: “The heart sets no limits on what it can choose.”
In poem after poem, Muse affirms her affection for animals. Their lives only seem smaller than our own. Theirs is a timelessness and a universality that mocks our time-bound individuality. In “The Watcher at Chauvet Cave” we encounter not just a prehistoric artist’s representation of an owl, but, and this is the magic of the painting (and Muse’s poem), the owl itself: “Thirty thousand years of dark came on / while the owl looked out from the wall.”
Yet during all that time, Muse insists, the owl was restless, wanting more of the world. Which he will receive only at the end of time, when “cracks in stone zigzag across the earth”:
Owl with a mighty jerk will rid himself of his maker’s
balance and force the rock to make room. At last
he will turn his head towards the stone
and gaze into what he’s made of.
At times her identification with non-human animals leads to total transformation. “A Bee Took Me to the Water” is a visionary poem complete with a talking bee. It might remind you of Alice in Wonderland or the Grimm Brothers’ “Queen Bee.” The poet swallows the bee and entering a stream, they encounter the push of a current, which they ride “all the way to the mother of waters, / heaving, heavy with salt.” “For the length of a breath,” the poet tells us, “I was alive in two worlds.” What is this but a kind of baptism, returning the human back to nature?
Muse does not limit her sympathies to animals. The downcast and downtrodden among her fellow humans also elicit her concern. “Rio Grande,” for instance is a stern protest against this country’s treatment of migrants on the southern border, focusing on the famous photo of a man and his daughter who drowned while trying to cross the mighty river. But rather than directing her outrage at the villains in this desperate scenario, the poet crafts a love poem for the victims:
What we know of their deaths is in the photo:
her small curly head and her father’s …
staring down into the water as if looking for minnows.
The tenderness here, as well as the pain, is exquisite, the moment of gravest sorrow reminding us of the bond between father and daughter, their shared love of nature. Like the girl, the minnows are harbingers and bearers of the future. But for the girl and her father there will be no future.
Muse’s sympathies are so broad she can even present the perpetrators, the victimizers with something like objectivity. In “The Torturer Describes His Job,” we notice the speaker’s practiced callousness. Concerning his victims, he thinks to himself, “You are a wall, / and I am going to break you down.” Small details matter, to the torturer, and to Muse. He doesn’t say “I’m going to break you down,” but “I am going to break you down,” the deliberate, precise syntax reinforcing his dedication to destruction.
As Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Muse says it with greater vitriol:
I want this poem to say love,
but here in Casino America where the time
is always the same (outside noon or rain,
starlight or smoke—who knows?)
what we have are mirrors and money
and a belief in honoring urges.
Nobody wants to get old.
We who are made of wanting—
how can we love what we see in the mirrors?
How can we love you?
(“To Our Enemies”)
We can’t love ourselves, so how can we love those we call our enemies?
And yet we have to try. Amid these dire scenarios, Muse offers a series of measured affirmations. “We don’t owe everything to sorrow,” she insists in “Small Ode to Joy.” And in a similar vein, “we should sing when we can / but not expect too much of song.” (“Why I Prefer the Rebec”).
Acceptance of life’s beauty, recognition of its cruelties, these are hallmarks of Muse’s temperament. In the title poem, she turns her attention to the Heraclitean river, Time, Mother of Change, Mother of Death, and offers this exculpation:
If you crush me against rocks
or force me to breathe like a fish
I forgive you, river
I loved you anyway,
let me say that
As unexpected as the love of the man for his pig, Muse finds herself loving her dearest enemy. In ending the poem without punctuation, she demonstrates how the river interrupts even those of us (poets?) who are professionally talkative.
Are we living in end times? Apologists of the sacred would insist that Armageddon is fast approaching. In her parable “Last Days,” Muse seems to suggest that Armageddon has already arrived. One evening backyards everywhere crack open:
Dead souls streamed out,
unreeling upwards, all in black and white,
and mildly lighted like in old movies.
Soon they’re everywhere, always in the way. The living can’t avoid walking through the dead:
You feel as if you’d passed in front of a projector:
there’s no sensation, but there’s a shadow on you,
and for a moment, a face replaces
your face. It only seems right to stand still.
It only seems right to run.
Despite our need to hold tight to a sense of individuality, we realize the illusory nature of self, we see that the “I” is only a projection of our genes, the shadow of the past on the wall of Plato’s cave.
What a deeply satisfying book, each piece beautifully crafted, constantly surprising, and deeply intelligent. Even an activity as simple as “Watching Fish” becomes an opportunity to remind us not just what distinguishes fish from humans (“It’s shimmy, shimmy, shimmy all the time”), but of the kind of life to which we apes manqués might aspire — “Whatever a fish wants to do / takes the whole fish.”