Dreaming of Rivers

One autumn night in your thirties
you bob up from sleep.
You’ve been dreaming of rivers.
Dazed, warm in the blankets,
you turn the dream over,
burnish the edges, hidden corners,
before the glow goes flat
in the morning light.

The Ellershouse River.
Begin with the girl, the spot
where your bodies blazed
in the sweetfern.
The river noses in there,
shoulders the lane,
turns back to the trees,
and you trace the clear water
upstream, slowly,
bend by bend,
pausing to fish as you did then
the foam-scummed pools.
You cross on a deadfall,
skirt rapids to the oxbow
on a lop-stick trail.
There the land takes a breath, rises
to the bridge and thick woods
on the other side. From below,
you see again how the trestle hovers,
creaks like death in the air,
and crossing over, smell that old
preserver on the ties. On the far side
the beeches sidle in to waterfalls,
black pools, waterstriders moving
in the gloom. Fishing gets better
and you bring the boys in from the dream,
give names to them,
keep on climbing in your mind
toward the thin source of the stream,
push on until, short of it,
deep in the shadow of spruce
and straggle of swale,
memory stammers, repeats itself,
and for all your cunning
this river fades into other rivers,
all rivers.

Holding on before daylight,
you wheel in your circle of loss,
pine and resin, damp moss fragrant
on memory’s air, and go for one more crack
at the orange-bellied trout
where the water hooks down
through the trees, through the gorge,
around water-honed granite,
past the trestle to a pause, doubles back
on itself, widens, lightens,
and eases on down to the lane—
where the hunted Indian, Shires,
one step ahead of the Mounties
leaped into legend that swollen spring—
then over shoals, under willow overhangs,
past cutbanks and, highballing on current now,
you sweep through alders, by the mill,
the bridge, past Deming’s store,
and wind through flat pasture
to the big-bend camp-meeting
shallows of baptism
where the water leans back
and foots it under the elms,
to the swimming-hole full of bodies, breasts,
and one final shoot through a meadow
to the highway bridge
and beyond where you’ve been yet,
ocean bound now,
with all those other rivers
blinking silver through the trees,
golden in the sun
and though you’ve lost it again

you know it doesn’t end here.

Questions and Answers

About “Dreaming of Rivers”:

“Dreaming of Rivers” is the title poem of my first full-length collection. Like so much of what I have written, it was birthed by a dream and fostered by memory, Mnemosyne being the mother of the muses. One night, while I was living in New Orleans, far from my boyhood home in Nova Scotia, I had a particularly vivid dream about a river close to one of the villages where I had grown up. Though it was called a river, it was hardly more than a creek, as I discovered on a trip back home many years later. It was a happy circumstance that I had written the poem first, before that adult revisiting of a boyhood landscape. At the point of seeing it again, stripped of the halo of recollection, I fear it would have failed to stir my imagination.

When I awoke from the dream, which was centrally about the girl in stanza two and a sexual initiation, I rehearsed it, as I have learned I must if I’m going to remember what I have dreamt. And then I went beyond the dream, trying to trace in memory the windings of the water and the characteristics of the surrounding landscape. I’ve performed this exercise many times, mostly with oft travelled roads in mind.

Whenever my friends and I fished this river as boys, we would start at a point downstream and gradually move upstream, pausing to fish likely looking pools. It might take half a day until we arrived near the head of the stream, though I don’t think we ever went all the way up to where it issued, most probably from various rivulets flowing out of the steep hillside. Before we got to this point, we would reverse direction and, on the way downstream, fish the pools again.

In addition to trying to remember the turnings and tumblings and “twindlings”—to use a word invented by G. M. Hopkins—and other features of the river, I started to recall some of the boys I fished with. When I at last in my mind turned back downstream, with the companions I had welcomed into my reverie, and the river, running downhill, began to flow faster, I proceeded to bring back local lore—a manhunt, river baptisms, village businesses, the community swimming hole.

The pace of the poem picks up at the beginning of stanza three to correspond with the increasing speed of the water as it rolls downhill. This stanza, plus the final line, is one long sentence consisting of thirty three lines, constituting a deliberate attempt to mimic with syntax the rapid movement of the water.

At some point, in trying to turn my memory of the dream and the reflections about the river into a poem—mostly I think because the whole experience had been so pleasant, and I wanted to preserve it—I realized that my river was functioning as an archetypal symbol, the river of life. I could trace it back in memory, but not to its ultimate source. I could turn around and follow it along the way I had come, but only as far as the highway bridge, beyond which our parents did not permit us to go. On the other side of this bridge, one might imagine, began the mysterious terrain of adulthood.

Why did I write the poem in the second person, something I have seldom done? I don’t really think I could remember, as much as I might try. Perhaps the decision to do so was intuitive. Or maybe I did it to try to objectify the experience, suggest that the theme has more than a personal significance. I don’t recall what I was thinking; nevertheless, I have the feeling, many years later, that the decision was right for the poem.

When I had finished writing it, I was sufficiently pleased with the poem, with the wide embrace of the initially unintended archetypal symbol at its core, that I decided immediately its title would be the proper one for my book to carry out into the world.

This poem “Dreaming of Rivers” originally appeared in Poetic Form. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 97 (Summer 1983): 35-36.

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