In, on, and about the River
Delaware Memoranda by Richard Owens
Memorandum—"a note of things to be remembered"—combines memory and writing, two of the territories Richard Owens delves into in this remarkable book. On one level, Delaware Memoranda provides images from the history of the Delaware River that illumine its significance—create, in Owens' hands, its mythos:
There are rivers
we live along
to see them is
to see ourselves
to see them as (11)
and on another it recognizes the fathers of Owens' person and of his imagination—both his actual father (part VI quotes from his letters)—and the poet-fathers named or quoted in this rich text, some of whom, like Pound, are also implicated in the river's story.
Pound too made his way across the river
with all Washington's flair
—to Mary in Trenton
swinging in hammock
on Scudder's porch in Scudders Falls
his curly mop caught her eye
& they canoed
may have reclined on the banks
more if she'll have it—
. . . .
& at Cheltenham in 1897
Pound in academy uniform
nearly dies in flash flood
at Tacony Creek
struggling to save a drowning dog. (69-70)
Whitman, W.C. Williams, Antheil, Crane, Olson, Duncan, Niedecker, and Metcalf all likewise find themselves named or quoted here.
If these were the fathers of his work with the material of this poem, Owens' actual father taught lessons no less of value—
my mother taught me
to walk before shoes
to talk before speech
my father to fish
within our own water
the stuff of survival (92)
All these fathers surface in the book's flow.
The image of logs floating down river, bobbing up and down, almost works as metaphor for the Memoranda's serpentine serial passage, but it suggests a randomness that's belied by the book's careful structure. Sections II and III offer resonant glimpses into the history of the river, home initially to tribal people, the "Delaware," or, more properly, the Lenni-Lenape, and then to Europeans of various ethnicities, some of whom, notwithstanding the differences in cosmologies between them and the native people they had violently replaced, became the river's own:
Upstream from Big Eddy swirling—in Narrowsburg, New York—Delaware cave dweller Coxie Bivens, b. 1862–d. 1912. River rat. River guide. An obituary in the October 1, 1912, edition of the Narrowsburg Democrat states:
He eked out a meager existence working around the village and for the past two years had lived in a cave across the river from Narrowsburg. It was hardly a cave, but simply an over-hanging rock with a few boards as a shelter. (31)
The core of the book for me is Section IV, which includes the wonderful "Dispossessed—River Down" and "Boney Quillen." Boney, a "rafter songster prankster" conjures up for me Olson's Enyalion, though he's all American:
. . . Quillen Civil War veteran . . .
Aimed with the aim of missing
so never shot a man.
Prankster trying patience—bare to none
stealing ill-fitted shoes coats & cash
swaps water for whiskey
at Trenton pharmacies.
Downriver on ragged edges
stink of heavy drink on the breath
running at times
shouting ahead "Cut 'er loose, boys!"
shoving raft from shore
climbing into the quick currents. (66)
Driving through the Delaware Water Gap will never be the same; these figures will now echo in my memory—and this book, too, in which their stories have become essential truth.