Water’s fall

How thirsty will we have to get? Drought looks terrible on the Hudson’s palisade, where trees have browned all along the crest. The brook in my neighborhood had dried up completely last week, but got back a trickle at least, which I noticed while walking Old Mountain Road this morning. The beech saplings alongside might not recover.

So good to escape into a good book and dive into the opposite experience. I’m continuing my summer binge of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oeuvre with An Inland Voyage—canoes in spring rain in the late 19th-century French countryside.

The light sparkled golden in the dancing poplar leaves, and brought the hills into communion with our eyes. And all the while the river never stopped running or took breath; and the reeds along the whole valley stood shivering from top to toe.

Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage
Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage
Saranac Lake, New York
RLS portrait

We visited the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake, where the writer had retreated from NYC for the sake of his health in the winter of 1887-88. The long-time curator, Mike, was quite delighted at our delight at seeing the trove of artifacts collected in this tiny white house. A treasure, for real.

RLS’s writing desk while in Saranac Lake

It was here that he changed course, deciding not to return to Scotland and, instead, making plans for his trip to the South Pacific. Now that I’m reading this earlier travel memoir of his, I think by this plan he meant to cheat death again, by living as fully as he could. The passage I quoted earlier continues by describing how reeds in a riverbank gesture with their shivers, indicating how the river is “strong and cold, and how death lurked in the eddy underneath the willows.”

As for us, we could have shouted aloud. If this lively and beautiful river were, indeed, a thing of death’s contrivance, the old ashen rogue had famously outwitted himself with us. I was living three to the minute. I was scoring points against him every stroke of my paddle, every turn of the stream.

Obviously, this is the joy of a writer famous for his adventure tales. But I think the best Zen teachers would approve of this moment-by-moment presence.

RLS portrait with the muse, painted by his friend Will H. Low

Since I’m paddling into a new relationship with my literary self–as a poet who is not teaching–I’m feeling a little wistful. Classes at my college start in a couple of days, and I’m imagining the students and my former colleagues readying themselves for the months of rigorous work ahead of them. My changing course like this also feels exhilarating, but as though I’m mocking the prevailing demons who torture poets every day instead of battling them head on.

If I were teaching this academic year, I’d have added a lot of new readings to my syllabi. More Louise Glück like this, and Ada Limón like this. More literature-in-translation to whet their appetite. More classic excerpts and verses as main course. More online litmag fare. More humor for dessert. But I’m not teaching. So that’s a little sad for me, too.

I have thought it’s selfish to luxuriate in fine literature and not bring others into it.

The Dhammapada was tossing around the metaphor of reeds in a stream this weekend, too. In the chapter titled “Thirst,” we are warned against indulging compulsive, selfish desires, as opposed to positive desires that seek self-awareness and realization toward deepening compassion.

Whomsoever this fierce poisonous thirst overcomes, in this world, his sufferings increase like the abounding Bîrana grass. But from him who overcomes this fierce thirst, difficult to be conquered in this world, sufferings fall off, like water-drops from a lotus leaf.

Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada, transl. F. Max Müller

My challenge is to figure out new ways to be generous with my poetic. In Alexander Pushkin’s incomplete short story, “Egyptian Nights,” the two protagonists have very different ways of being poets to the people around them. They experience a kind of culture shock with respect to each other, which is very intriguing, especially as they recognize their common underlying current of inspiration and authenticity. We could call that current the knowledge of death coming up for air in each moment, turning everything silvery and precious.

A view of Lake Placid and surroundings from the summit of Whiteface Mountain, a high peak of the Adirondacks

I realize I could just write and make art without teaching and organizing for others, and that that could be generous enough in itself. Maybe I will go on feeling low for a few weeks, through this beginning of the academic year that is happening without me. Stevenson’s narrative dips into the harrowing moment in which his canoe collided with a fallen tree and tipped him into the fast-moving river, and this is how I feel too.

The stream ran away with my heels as fast as I could pull up my shoulders, and I seemed, by the weight, to have all the water of the Oise in my trousers pockets. You can never know, till you try it, what a dead pull a river makes against a man. Death himself had me by the heels, for this was his last ambuscade, and he must now join personally in the fray. And still I held to my paddle. At last I dragged myself on to my stomach on the trunk, and lay there a breathless sop, with a mingled sense of humor and injustice.

Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage

Yes, I’m holding on to my paddle. And I won’t let go, no matter where the canoe has gotten to.

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