Pushcart XL: Julia Story, “Picture of a River” (poetry) from Sixth Finch, Winter 2014

Christopher Marlowe? Portrait at Cambridge University

Christopher Marlowe? Portrait at Cambridge University

They could eat food but it made them decay. I read about it, then put the book down and slept for five hours. I dreamed the river took the dead in a type of passageway, on its way to somewhere else, or toward other people.

Angelina Jolie’s belly has popularized the Latin statement “quod me nutrit me destruit”, usually interpreted as “What nourishes me destroys me”. The sentiment goes back much further. Shakespeare used a similar sentiment in Sonnet 73 and in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. What may – or may not – be the only surviving portrait of Shakespeare’s contemporary (and, some believe, his true identity), Christopher Marlowe, includes the same quote; it may be a variation of the inscription on a statue of his literary hero, Ovid, usually translated as: “Here I lie, who played with tender loves, Naso the poet, killed by my own talent.”

They’re talking about ambitions and drives, including the artistic urge to create, rather than food (though I understand the quote has been used, or perhaps mis-used, by pro-anorexia groups), I leapt to those thoughts with the first line of Story’s prose poem. What is ingestion, digestion, nourishment, but destruction, and life itself requires death. Yet that conundrum is the definition of hell: to be destroyed by what is required for life. This is a bit of a digression, as it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the piece. It merely captivated me from the start.

Although the poem is one single paragraph, I can see four different visions of rivers: the book that starts us off, then the dream, then a memory from Sunday school, then a more prosaic river in a town: a river that does nothing. The rhythms of the sentences change between these rivers. We start off with that almost bouncy 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3/and-stop first sentence, but the next section has a more rolling rhythm, like the small waves a river might have. The Sunday school portion describing the Rapture loses rhythm, but it’s picked up again when “the river, here in the book and in my head, moves part of me to another part of me.”

Then the line that echoes the first, rhythmically in style if not in meter: “There was a River in my town: it did nothing” which I can parse into iambic-ish pentameter that comes to a halt at just the right semantic place: on nothing. Even the river of the dead has a function.

I’m not sure if the initial vision is from the ancient Greeks, the Romans, from Dante, or from some later imagining of Styx. I’m not sure of anything here, except that there are opposites that are the same: life and death, nourishment and destruction, this part of me and that part of me, the loving God who rains down destruction on his creation.

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