Arts & Culture / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 2

The Hudson River: An Autobiography

Charles Frederick Seen with Faith as Completed Knowledge

Image Credit: Charles Frederick, Seen with Faith as Completed Knowledge, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist.


This town’s edge,
a collapsing shore,

seems always to be
where live the poor.

In my mother’s time,
they called us

river rats,/ now the words
mix insults/ of race,

stones on our tongues
we spit at others.

* * * * *
History’s latest
alluvial deposit,

–drowning here/ we are
the ghosts,/ our river’s
foaming,/ fretful surface:

by generation–/
our bodies,/ flotsam and jetsam

* * * * **

(but/ still asleep/
my tongue in his mouth

–y entonces/
         saboreo/ sus suenos secretos,/
                                      (y mi mismo,/ tambien)–

I ask/ (yo te lo ruego):

if we are the end,
aren’t we then also

its harvest/ its someday turn
to upheaval?

aren’t we also inevitable/ lo inevitable?

* * * * *

This river
(I have swallowed)
drinks me too

(we are each
              the other’s lover,
                                     no place left but us)

* * * * *

this river is my Viking’s wyrd,/
the currents, tides/ and all who live

now or before,/ below and above/ are the
always to be/ the forever and never/ accidental children

–born in this water
              where I, too, live forever
                            and who with me, indwells–

* * * * *

Until we had named ourselves
and all other things by our words,

fate was no more than chance
and collision, matter and spirit

a random dance/ in ether and time.

Some became crustacean, piscine,

mollusk,/ fin and muscle
(breathing water instead of air)

but some, on land, saw others/ with
bodies and limbs/ resembling their own:/

(our ancestors, where surprise,
                                   awakening their minds,/

invented the speech/ in prayer/
                                   to say to one another:/ we exist)

* * * * *

We found each other, climbing down boughs
of trees, stripping and eating insects and leaves;

upright, we ran swiftly in groups, clans,
tribes, young and old, over the newly drier land,

heads aloft in unconscious dream, focused
on what’s far away, past or yet to come, not

just the recent ground beneath/
                 different from our cousin creatures/

* * * * *

so thus, we began the trek and dance
of the First Migration, away

from the Great Rift Valley, where
the Earth clefts/ in Africa,

the womb
from which, mud colored, we had emerged.

* * * * *

Becoming slowly, inevitably, human,
we shed and assumed new skins,

features of body and face, skull
and skeleton, habits and habitats;

–eyes and noses, hair, lips and mouths–
(we knew/ to love on one another)

wax melting, the flame constant, we swam in our pool of genes,
meta/morphosing over hundreds of thousands of years–

* * * * *
within this dawn of ourselves, we halted/
                                            to invent, /next, to remember/
                                                                                        an imagination of time/
                                                                                                                          tales/ both of history and myth

–learning how material time ends for us, this knowledge too harrowing, we lavishly painted walls and ceilings and floors near and remote, inscribed scores remade and relearned (and sometimes lost), figuring these caves for ritual mystery, caves deep hollowed from the earth by weather and geologic cataclysm, stone sanctuaries we had come upon, so, so much farther back in time from us (as we now understood it), accepting these labyrinth openings in the Mother/ Earth with proper awe and worship and found for them now this purpose: where we would wonder about time and death and what abounded (including us) among all that lives, after painting the walls, which we did again and again finding sign and meaning and precision and leaving messages and handprints over thousands of years in conscious palimpsest for those who would come after any one of us or our clans had left, imagining destiny, perspiring and naked in the burning warmth, we danced against the flames of orange firelight, before the high jumping by flickering fire charcoal and ochre and white clay phantasms of our shadows mingling within our swarms of painted prey, so those we captured there on the walls surrounded by irregular sheltering boulders and overhanging rock kept running, running, illuminated in the flames as though all were fulfilled, none were killed, and free in their boundaryless power, and we, sometimes on their backs, sometimes at their sides, sometimes in figures chasing from behind with our spears and axes of stone in the air, a turbulent ceremonial, a beginning not the end, always the beginning again, our hunt with god with them would never end, in our art we opened the door, entering forever, letting all the world flood through with us, refusing this absurd and mistaken curse of our terminus/ death–

* * * * *

we chanted, our creation we told/ breath into
shouts/ to call and response/ to gods and ourselves/

we danced/ in long unfurling lines, bodies of so many
dimensions (pale to dark) of brown, swaying back to ground then

to sky/ from side to side/ arms shaping breaking sunlight
rims/ clapping hands, we stomped our feet, meeting

the earth/ while our drums conjured spiral trails of trance
through all that exists/ forever before and beyond/ the here and now

* * * * *

in and out of Africa, our bodies walking, we lengthen into twisting
vines, long shimmering and bright scaled/ green and crimson snakes through forests,
barefoot, strumming and jumping the lines a myriad of climates
draw over the earth, threshing savannah and sand,

following our goats’ cloven tap dancing hooves
over (sacred) mountains, grasping with sibling bears

the glacier ice (while envying the hawk
and the sparrow because they could climb the vaulting sky and fly),

from hardwood logs we carved canoes,
and on their prows we painted the ancestors’ masks,

dozens in performance unison, we strained with our paddles
(like dolphins’ fins) against currents for thousands of miles,

braving what was so very vast, when for weeks/ only sun sky clouds, darkness/
the phasing moon/ stars and blue or black water would appear

* * * * *

but we crossed every sea, from island
to island, continent to continent, season after season

–completing this singing, this web of ourselves
enfleshing the world over its bones of rock, we became its mask–

born as children of the earth,/ this green blue red
yellow and brown planet/ had become in turn

our child as well,/ we are now the stepparent god,
guardian/ to our mutual fate–

* * * * *

We dreamed ourselves into life,
remembering tales from before

we had ever been,/ we are
the birthwritten creatures

–a nova of nomads tossed from a box/
                long kept hidden/ in a fold of the gown/
                                                         of our ancient Lady universe–

* * * * *

River/Me: do we remember?

when you, Lover, were elsewhere,
not yet here? We were

happy to be without fate/ roaming
along the vagrant paths of stars

in patterns of individual footsteps,
tracing our frail and rain washed trails

over the rugged whole
of this vast/ and luminous earth,

answering our multifarious species’ calling:
to make from this vibrant fecund world:

gardens/ worthy of our gods?

–and River, was I always looking/ for you?–

* * * * *

But, now/ it can be imagined/ the Atlantic
crashes/ un borracho/ angry and chaotic/ against

the shores of four of Earth’s continents:
like stained and ragged curtains,/ waves

drawing suddenly, shamelessly back/
on abattoir prosceniums:

the blood of warring empires, the steam
and stench of poisoned land, seas now

pitted cauldrons of acid broth,
and people in ceaseless entropic flight, bellies

swollen by the vacancy of hunger,
scars on their skin like rancid parchment

inked, crossed out and inked upon again
with the gore engorged stories of war, now we

cross an endless unyielding wilderness/ lost
in ourselves/ in the global ruin our history has caused

no more the midwives of the earth

* * * * *

–when, River, remember, (with me)
once upon a time, long, long ago

(moonlight tonight
                    in ripped patches of light

lovers’ clothes, thrown off,
                    loose over a rising wave,

while we hurry, swimming together, and under–
                    to making love)

there was only one continent, it
was called Pangea, when rock, now

in the bed beneath you, Muhheakantuck,
was then part of the unbroken stone

deep beneath the tropical Sahara, and already
mammals were wandering the land

(tracing out the wild paths
to groves and sacred precincts/

later we would follow and build
the altars, just where they had signed)

* * * * *

But now, in our era, look!
we can see them, massive

apparitions, boundaryless,
in a growth of violence,

an admonishing mark
in the sky, against us:

grown into catastrophe,
the Hurricanes

who once were the great storms
the Taino people worshiped

–before Columbus–
by her name Guabancex

who they learned, brought destruction
down as punishment/ when

there was sin, when
the right order of stability

balance, reverence
for the earth and its creatures

in its tender, sacred web
had been forgotten,

was no longer danced
and prayed, her elemental

fury would be unleashed:
chaos begun and fueled

by the human failure, mirrored
in the storm in sea and land and air

now/ these winds wreak terror
from the memory of what remains

in our time unatoned/ for what
we do not yet/ have sufficient speech

to weave us whole, to repair
the webs we have broken:

for the Middle Passage,
for the people enslaved,

fifteen million people/ transported
from Africa, in chains,/ millions, corpses,

ghosts/ at their arrival, another Migration, this time
by enslavement,/ dispossessing the enslavers

of their human state, they becoming forever beasts,
reversing our evolution–

and for the dispossession from the land,
the disease, the rape, the slaughter,

the attempted annihilation of the elder peoples
throughout the Hemisphere.

When Columbus came, the lands of the Northern
and Southern Continent may have held

one hundred million people,
speaking thousands of languages

and inhabiting each and every kind of land,/
condition and way of life (prosperously)/ and throughout–

until/ in the farthest reaching genocide
recorded in human history

by the time of the American Republic/ perhaps
less than ten million remained from pole to pole.

–even while maize, which these fellow humans bred
as a worship of the earth/ from a wild

grass called teosinte–god is the grain–
is the corn/ now the food, extending and extending, over all the world–

* * * * *

–all the ghosts will possess this place where they die
eating the stars, they will grow to fill the nighttime sky–

* * * * *

unless they shall be reborn/ in us/
as new souls/ in our children’s bodies,

and we will sing to them/ like the new sound of time:
lullabies, stories of peace we then/ now will know,

while remembering, telling/ our common sorrow
for what we have done,/ giving ourselves and our planet new life,

(as the recent African prophet has said:)
bending the arc/ again towards justice.

–but we have not yet
                            made this true–

* * * * *

and so every year the Juracan still rushes
over this ocean from Africa,

the oldest place, to the Caribbean,
the newest, and then upward, North

even to me,/ my river,/ ghosts howling:
no one unscathed, repeating Guabancex’s warning

in a modern, unknowing/now

* * * * *

This river, Muheakantuck,
(the always restless water

said the Lenni Lenape)
swallows me, whole

(Like Chronus did/ with
his children he feared)

forced by the Atlantic,
we rise up, reversing

the peristalsis of eons
of geologic order, as well as

rage and the indigestible gorge
of all these things/ which have happened.

* * * * *

Carrying for more
than a hundred miles

the invader Ocean,
on Muheakantuck’s back.

–the route Hudson took
as he traveled, until his boat

was too large, could
never reach the ice blue lake

which begins the River:

‘Tear of the Clouds’, high up
in the Adirondacks’ peaks.

And Henry stole all he surveyed
for his Dutch shareholders

the Lenape had no say;
nor did the tens of thousands

from Angola the same bankers
had seized as slaves, some to build

their town on Manahatta
they called New Amsterdam,

we call New York.

* * * * *

I accept how this river opens wide
my eyes/ with burning salt.

When I stand in the River,
boy child, weightless beneath his roof

–looking up, I see, a sun gem glittered/ turquoise tent–
and in anarchic joyous abandon/ I re-imagine myself

in history/ as the lover/ wizard
the Sacred Fool/ the faggot thief/

–a bringer of change
(born within him)

wearing in the water/ just
the long green and floating/ leaves of kelp,

and my sandals, bone white, pink and blue,/
made from shells the crabs have discarded–

* * * * *
I will not drown, this river
is a large man, lying

like Noah, roaring, exposed,
drunk on his bed in mythic forever:

He wants me here
and so I am.

Our yearning, yowling
hitherto untold dreams

taking us as far out to sea
as he will surge back

up the land, once again
into me,

and I accept him:

–my loyal Pinkster bailador
               in our African rebels’ Kongo dance

on the round and sacred Jubilee Hill/ in Albany
              where gods and slaves once danced as one–

* * * * *

I want him
to toss me/ brine cured/ midnight

locks over his liquid, slippery back,
on my River’s motion

of waves, of lunar ebb and flow,
both his frenzy and his glassy calm.

Our estuary valley is
the boy, naked, barefoot, me

giddy, sexy, slithering
through the waxing and waning arms

of the opalescent Moon:
my agile Lenape huntsman.

I am taking it,

the wind whipped whitecaps
of banshee hair,

even the undertow currents
of abusing fists,

which will slam
me into speech–

but, of course, yes,
just as much,

my lovely boy,

I am wanting you
to stroke and coax from me

our lyrics of ecstasies
and the blues

* * * * *
–gulls now bobbing/ on
                           my sun gashed surface,

their bodies canoes/they ride
                           my rolling, recurring,

crescendos, small/
                           of clamshell waves–

–I see them reach
               the shore, where at sunrise

where in solitude, where once
               so long ago, in such bewildered mind/

I met you–

* * * * *

my own unnatural being,

polyglot words
like sea polished stones

arise against gravity
to the surface

to crack apart
the rhyming unreason,

the chaos, history, from my
clan and birth/ possessing me:

–words converting
my whimpered rain

of inspired/ self pity

into Nor’easter storms
cleansing/ sky and land/

and broken tales, turning–
our desperation into art,

hoarse rabid barking
into a sermon on the mount
our sentiment into knowledge,
our knowledge into act–

* * * * *

I have been stolen
from my lover’s bed

(river’s voices
               in my head–)

to speak to power
the cruelty we have lived

to speak to ourselves
what now we want.

* * * * *

Already sacrificed,
              we needed re-membering.

This estuary is a river
              drowned by an ocean.

Poverty had been
the centuries’silt

settling this fjord,

pressing us into new
and volatile/ bedrock,

(appearing inert on maps/
                            as palisades of stone.)

* * * * *

Until, when in time, there
would be enough of us,

sons and daughters
breaking through

our mothers’ silence,
wombs’/ words made flesh,

wild with our hunger,
metaphysical and material,

enough to burrow through
this slowly deposited/ clay,

to gnaw at and crumble
this old but unnatural order,

* * * * *

– Muhheakantuck, the river/ we
will rise as though

the earth itself/ has become deranged
with want, with hope,/ no words

left to tell from an older time/

but the inchoate roar
of archaic/ chiliastic/ thunder/

(–while we hear between us/ outside of time/ we are
                    in soft embrace, as we were at the beginning, as children at play,
                                             each an echo of the other’s laughter,

or, words overheard: a old man in the water, floating
                     on cradles of imagined time, in both winter and summer weeds,
                            of this place, both river and sea,/ singing in our sleep, of his forever youth)

our knife tip,/ justice,/ relentlessly–
had picked/ at the edge of time–/

–until those dry and worn,/
                             so long dreaded/
                                           flaxen threads of fate/

became like dispersing strands of lint,/
                                       unskeined, unraveled/

finally, windblown and aloft/
                              until lost forever from sight–

* * * * *
Revolution is like a Romance,
only those in power will fear,

–while for me–

come, my sweet, sweet man,
come, my joyous River, come…

Epilogue: The Everyday

and that day of late July dozens of us we were crowded into the old cars 40s Chevrolets and pickups with rusted undercarriages and worn tires although one young uncle with no wife or child had a gleaming two toned white summer clouds and ocean turquoise Impala Bel Air curves and fins sexually polished precise bright and wide like the true red lipstick on his sweetheart’s lips in careless disregard for everyone else in no world but our own rampaging over the old highway following the River until on its banks at Grassy Point car doors burst open all at once the children me among them spilling out barefoot in cutoff shorts towheaded boys little brown shirtless torsos straight and curly haired girls in hand me down salt bleached string strapped bathing suits running over the dark molasses sand where there juts out showing through sometimes whole sometimes corners and edges sea shells chalk white streaked thunder grey sky diminutive but vivid blue rising from the sugary sand burnt brown burrs sharp against the arches of these racing children’s feet green violet azure and amber sea glass colors now pale like old women’s eyes beached detritus of every substance everyone with a different driftwood treasure a weapon a fortress on an abutment of sand a magic sailing maybe whaling boat a buttered toast streaked ivory seahorse the shore dry grained beige like a Dominican nun’s linen veil for a longer stretch when the tide was out at the edge the waves are wide water brooms ending with ocean saline spray refreshing your face and leaving grit in your hair wielded by the invisible forcefully and exactly sweeping into place a cool planed densely damp level fan of the sand compacted and tilted upward by the shaping rush and foam of water coming in over and from beneath the pulverized earth particulate rock and silicate crystal better than any castle a child could make but here I could see great crumbling forms held barely and precariously aloft then suddenly to collapse when the tide was in we walked over the cool wet shallow band of impressionable sand where we lift our feet out of our footprints imagining we are the first humans ever to have walked the shores of the empty world in our nostrils the onrush of the smell of shoreline drying kelp and decaying fish so acrid and piquant we keep in notice the near but so far away adults so recently across the globe in WWII their last steady job back now at home on the river cigarettes the smell of tobacco made richer by the sea they burn between their fingers and their mouths swallowing from cans of beer shouting back and forth opening car trunks to take out the baskets of vegetables we rinsed the dirt away from them in the briny river’s rough-handed flow the tomatoes the peppers the squash the corn our parents aunts and uncles stole stopping off to pick them in the very early dawn from the state institutional farms they were just going to rot in the fields anyway everybody said make work for those confined whom the authorities we always watch so warily call mentally unfit so close we feel them to be the same as us old waterworn crab baskets and fine webbed traps the barely still apparent etched grain on wood slats subtle disappearing ink messages telling it could be imagined our history dissolving in the river’s unceasing currents of sea water the traps baited with bloody chicken parts and tossed into the Hudson not too far from the shore but deep enough to catch the always plenty swimming blue crabs with the ropes tied to the outcropping stone here just above Haverstraw Bay named so by the Dutch slavers and farmers because the grass growing tall and wild along the river shore has the flecked blond color of oats and perfect sleep in the afternoon sunshine the hue of a Nordic painted maiden’s eyes while our cases of Ballantine beer are weighted down in a deeper spot to keep them cold the hundreds of old kilns on the sand along the water where once bricks were manufactured for rich peoples’ townhouses down river in the City by immigrant Irish fleeing the cruelties of English enforced starvation and newly freed Africans fleeing with their scars like runic tatoos the horrors of slavery after the Civil War small brick ovens like clay ruins of an extinct river civilization are fired up with driftwood to roast vegetables sweet hot juices bursting through splitting skins on my mouth and tongue the pots filled with the river water as a broth set on other kilns to boil the crabs the sun was so hot dipping people’s bodies into new vats of color changing them cinnamon and milk chocolate brown everyone in and out of the water children belonging to no one but themselves there was a dangerous undertow to this estuary river a sudden peril of drowning in places the river without warning could become very deep very cold always over its skin in the sun so many hues and tones and colors like sprinkled daylight stars and thick water motion ever just to be called blue or green or slate grey or golden light splashes on dark water indigo shadows a much greater spectrum and leviathan mystery but it was the place where we knew how to live this country was ours where we were unseen a wondrous weedy maze of water lanes swamplands inlets coves and sandy banks wailing out loud weeping willows flirting girls rose o’sharons clumps of troops of sea grass witches bending at the waist in stationary dance in this area the Hudson is at its widest before it continues on down south to empty into the bay returning to the Atlantic and beyond in the New York harbor the river moves in chaos like a raging banshee’s hair the same just like us streaming in all directions at once branching at every opportunity with brackish water roads through this rough jewel land hard hands and feet on us all its labyrinth whole seems to have a self a curious narcissistic self neither good nor bad nor with meaningful history this river in its greatness too strong to notice its force a river seeking more ways and places to be we were all there in it so close in a clan neither simply hate nor simply love it seemed all the pale tan red brown burned swinging arms were of a single uproarious eternal beast and the cacophonies of anger delight surprise competition foolishness outrage drink lovers’ whispers quarrels shouts sighs

were all waiting for me the stranger amongst them but continuous in history waiting for me the river the novel child in outlaw love it was all waiting for us to become new words in history in my eager and thirsty mouth while I ducked below our surface and tasted Muheakantuck’s revivifying cold and intoxicant liquor too ocean salty actually to drink where instead to swim

New York City 2017

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