Review of Flow: The life and times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River
15 November 2007 |
She is an irascible old thing, wry at times, but also wise. She is our witness. Her words – some of them extracted from a far away time – tell the story of our city. She is our Schuylkill River. In Flow, the National Book Award-nominated author Beth Kephart gives the Schuylkill a voice, a memory, a melancholic sensibility. She has given us a finely-tuned and moving work of art, an exquisite book of loss and wanting. In 76 narrative poems and nearly as many short historical essays, Kephart returns the “hidden river” to its place in our heart.
Kephart’s Schuylkill speaks of the Lenni Lenapes, of William Penn navigating upstream, yellow fever, General Howe’s near-occupation, Franklin’s death, Washington’s ascendancy, Mud Island, Turtle Rock, Lewis and Clark, the Skater’s Club, the Blockley Almshouse, the bridge Colossus, King Coal, John Kelly, Ernestine Bayer and Ernesta Drinker Ballard, Anthony Drexel and the jewfish, shad and Hurricane Agnes. The well-researched essays provide historical nuance, ultimately placing her work alongside Gary Nash’s First City and Steve Conn’s Metropolitan Philadelphia as a prescient contemporary account of Philadelphia history.
But it is the narrative poetry, in the pained voice of the river, which makes this a book to descend into, slowly, with all senses at the ready. Near the beginning, in a passage titled “Ice Storm,” the river says:
That moan you heard was my soul in repeated shatters. That cleaving apart was my remorse. You have your list of lost things; I have mine.
And later, in “Steam,” she lunges backward, correlating time:
They’ve left on the eyes of the locomotives. They’ve left them breathing there—each so much bigger than a bear, so much blacker than the panther whose footprints are sunk in deep beneath those tracks, whose eyes needed only the moon for ignition. I can no longer tell you where the owls have gone. I can’t explain what a night alone is.
Kephart is a master not only of descriptive memory, but of constructing a vocabulary of existence. Thus the river is born, becomes aware, is besieged, comes to terms with abuse, half-wishes to be abandoned, and very nearly loses hope. “When they gush me on,” she writes, “when they yank me off, I am slivered into tears. I die of boredom in their buckets.” Later, in “Water Wheels,” the river cries, “I lost the thought of me, misplaced my meaning…among so many other things, in the fight to undrown myself.”
Kephart writes of losing oneself, of abuse, of abandonment and self-hatred, of the slippery and maddening climb back to level ground. These are feminist themes. “Oh, but I did wage war upon the men who dug me out and dammed me, who redirected all my flowing,” she claims indignantly. “Did you think I would just lie here and take it?” With precision Kephart fuses feminism with the fight to save the planet.
On the east bank of the river, just north of the Girard Avenue Bridge, extends the 1200-foot-long Sleeping Woman, Philadelphia painter Thomas Chimes’ and poet Stephen Berg’s sculptural installation of Berg’s poem by the same name. Though much of the first part of the poem was lost when the sea wall collapsed in 1991, as Flow, Sleeping Woman is a female personification of the river. “The river consoles urgent, hypnotic,” says Berg’s poem. Here the poet communes with river. He aches, lies with her, hopes to be healed. “Love has shaken me like wind rushing down/from the hills hitting an oak you/burn me with what eyes look me in the face/friend to friend nothing’s sweeter than sleeping/with your love it heals the dying soul…” Ultimately he asks, “Stand touch me give me my name.”
Berg reminds us how much we need our intimate river, now as ever. We need to touch the mud with our feet, smell the breeze, swim beneath the overhanging birch.
Kephart replies, in kind. The river, too, is needy. Her point is that our souls are reflected onto the world we inhabit, and vice versa. When one is sick, so is the other. When one cries out the other weeps, even if there is no sound. Near the end of Flow, the river comments on the life of activist Ernesta Drinker Ballard. She reflects,
Were I to have lived like one of you—had I a birthing and a dying, had I the privilege of persuasion, had I a finite shape and course—I would have lived like Ernesta, sculpting time with a purpose.
I would have seen beyond myself.
I would have reached past.
Of course, Kephart’s Schuylkill, for its honesty and love, is simply, utterly persuasive. It reaches well beyond history—and even hope—into the realm of truth, however troubling and melancholic that may be.
Flow, by Beth Kephart
Temple University Press, 2007, 109 pages
ISBN: 15921263362 $23.00