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The Northern River


ISSUE:  Summer 1985
Our map must have been drawn
by an amateur cartographer who,
too anxious to please his readers,
provided imaginary portages
around real rapids.
Muskeg, brush, blackflies, and mosquitos. . . .
In one place we had to crash through
a sticky spruce thicket
so dense it must have taken two hours
to go not quite a quarter mile,
to find the river again below the falls.
At a stone-circled backwater
topped with foam and beaver stick flotsam,
we put in finally, weary, scratched up
and slipped out into midstream
and let the water carry the canoe.

We paddle and the canoe moves along
a little faster than the water moves,
and the trees along the shore go past
a little faster than the trees on the hill.
Our rhythmic motion delights us, bow and stern.
We say, “It couldn’t be better than this!”
“This is perfect, and as long as we follow the river
it’s impossible to ever get lost. Right . . .?”

At times the river runs full of intent
between its banks of granite and gabbro
where the tall pines dig into the cracks
and hold on, then falls,
turns back on itself and slows
to wander around for hours in the swamp muttering the
    word or two      
it has always known.
All that experience good for nothing, finally.
No one remembers the ice age
or much of what happened last week.
One gives up eating raw onions
and the amorous pursuit of young women
gives way to the cultivation of hair in the ears.
Here on either side
one-eyed, half-realized
birch stump, moss and rock
shapes that appeared sometimes at night
in your childhood room
and since have waited for your return.
Always lift your hat as you pass
and say “How do?”

We’ve wedged ourselves in for the night
among some spruce and balsam
that don’t welcome us and from a nearby blasted white
   pine       
a raven repeats his warning:
“I am a raven. Please do not
violate my personal space.”
We grope around in the dark at our feet
for sticks to feed the fire
until fuel and the brandy are exhausted
and we’ve begun our sideways drift to sleep.
The river continues all night
fumbling towards Hudson Bay.
We aren’t going that far.
It’s an evolution that goes beyond our participation.
A child said: “A long time ago
people used to be monkeys,
but not you and me.”

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