Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Richard Hague
Richard Hague is semi-retired after 43 years of full-time teaching; in the fall of 2012 he began facilitating creativity and criticism workshops at Thomas More College. His most recent collection of poems, During The Recent Extinctions: New & Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Dos Madres Press. He continues to operate a small Community-Supported Agriculture, Erie Gardens, in Cincinnati.
The Course of the River
A few years after the summer Ohio River canoe trip Jim Quinlivan and I took from Cincinnati down to Big Bone Lick Island, I was standing by the open window of my classroom. I don’t remember exactly what was going on—the students were taking a test, maybe, or praying intently for me to be raptured suddenly, gone forever from them. But in the silence I heard it—the long, high, distantly sweet moan of a steam whistle—the Delta Queen’s.
A few kids looked up. The whistle sounded again, echoing up and over Columbia Parkway and the East Walnut Hills bluffs and finally sighing its way down Hackberry Street. It was a moment of connection, and I looked around for some sign of acknowledgment in my students’ faces. In me, it caused an entire complex of emotions: nostalgia for the life of the river, which Jimmy Scanlon and some others of my own ancestors had pursued in their shantyboat days; the forbidden temptation to run away from it all and hang out along the banks for the rest of my life; the desire to share something of the river and its characters and stories with my students; sorrow that they might never experience the river richly, its lore, its physical presence, its flooded history of beauty and destruction, even though native Ohio River valley dwellers they were, all of them.
Soon the moment passed; the students had not been impressed and went back to their work. In my mind’s eye I watched the boat labor upriver past St. Rose’s Church, past the East End Water Works, past the mouth of the Little Miami, past Coney Island. Later, as I sat in a shrieking basement lunch room eating sandwiches I’d unwrapped from damp wax paper, I imagined her locking through Meldahl Dam, her calliope shooting steam and melody, awakening the brilliant autumn air.
One of the many great things about teaching where I do is that it is close to the river—close enough to hear the Delta Queen’s whistle. For a reasonably fit class, the banks of the Ohio are a fifteen minute walk away, and it’s all downhill from here—cross Madison Road, down Hackberry to William Howard Taft, right at the bottom of the hill onto the precipitous Collins Avenue, cross Eastern at the foot of Collins, and we’re there.
We gathered at the river last week. “We” includes our students and Nicki Hewald, third-year teacher, Purcell Marian science department, and me, thirtieth-year teacher, English department. Several months previously, I’d sat across from Nicki, a slender, vivacious former college volleyball player who was enjoying the end of her second year of teaching. In the faculty room over lunch and conversation I got from her a kind of informal resume. I learned that she held dual degrees from John Carroll University, English and science, and some wheels that hadn’t turned for quite a while began to revolve again. During a short experiment with quarter-long electives in the early Seventies, I had taught a little course on the river. The boys in the class (Purcell was still an all-male institution back then) collected songs, read some stories and poems. One especially enterprising fellow interviewed the wife of a river captain and made an oral history tape. It had been an enjoyable teaching and learning experience, and I regretted that the experiment had been so brief. I kept my notebook from the course, and every once in a while looked back over it, remembering the boys and our studies. So there in the faculty room, a few other teachers at the lunch table with us, I said to Nicki, “How about us teaching a river class together? You do science, I’ll do literature and history and folklore.” Nicki was all for it, and since the call for interdisciplinary classes had been sent out by our principal Jan Kennedy, we got the go-ahead. Over the next couple of days, we wrote the course description, and speeded it into the latest course selection catalogue—the crucial step, so that students could sign up for it for the next school year. We did not worry about planning out all the details of the course beforehand; we knew that innovation more often than not requires fluidity and speed, not inflexibility and wrong-headed deliberateness.
What a pleasure it was to draft that course description. At the beginning of any enterprise, there is a sense of adventure, an anticipatory delight that, after everything has been in place for a while, wears off and can hardly be recaptured. When Jimmy Quinlivan and I were planning our Ohio River canoe trip in l976, much pleasure arose from talking about it all winter over beers at Arnold’s Bar & Grill downtown, a place that has been in continuous operation since the lag-end of the glory days of steamboating here in this river city, and where I once had an evening-long conversation with Captain Jim Coomer, whose book about his days on the river is a valuable contribution to the literature of the Ohio. Jimmy Quinlivan and I also had followed a course of reading, studying maps, imagining what we might see, building and refining itineraries, their details scribbled on napkins and menus, all the while knowing that the river would not, could not, be put down on paper, and that we would have to wing it and change our minds often during the trip.
Similarly excited, Nicki and I built a list of possible science topics involving several realms: ecology, biology, botany, physics, chemistry, engineering. As for my part of the course, I already had a literature reader, Down The River, an anthology of Ohio River Fiction and Poetry, published by Always A River, Inc. here in Cincinnati, and edited by the late University of Cincinnati professor Dallas Wiebe. I had served on the book’s editorial board during the Year Of The River when the National Endowment for the Humanities and all six of the Ohio River states’ Arts Councils collaborated on a multifaceted celebration. I was pleased to be able to put the book to classroom use. Besides the academic content, we were excited by the prospects of regular field trips, and of doing river-related community service, including water quality monitoring for Green Acres, a private environmental group, and working in various river cleanups as they appeared on the calendar.
So down we went, two teachers, sixteen river rats, including three game young women, Erin Qualters, Alicia Vargas, and Shannon Simpson. Eric Rosemire, a former student at Clark, one of the first Montessori high schools in the country, confided that he knew about a secret beach. We padded through his old school’s parking lot off Eastern Avenue, threaded our way on a dirt path through a green tunnel of honeysuckles along the chain-link fence, turned left, and descended a set of concrete steps down to the river.
I do not think this world in all its variety and surprise offers anything much better than a late summer river’s banks when it’s at normal pool. The scenery is always excellent, water flashing in the sunlight, the wooded opposite shore soft and green, the sweet wash of waves at your feet, the smell of the river, its funky perfume compounded of mud, fish, rain, oil. For the artist’s eye, there are the shards of polished blue and green and frosty glass, mixed in with the buffs and tans and umbers of sand and gravel, and, more vividly, the pebbles of crushed red brick; for form and mass, there are bigger, older loaves of glacier-fetched granite or sandstone, which I knew as a kid in Steubenville as “river biscuits.” In addition to all this there is the movement, the constant onwarding, of the river itself. Life is motion, it reminds you; life loves movement, change, and is constantly transitioning from chaos to form, from amorphousness to pattern, and then back again. The polymorphous design of things is hardly more apparent anywhere else than at the side of a river: the textures of cottonwood bark, the million flashing and expertly grown cottonwood leaves, all so much alike, the sprawl and dance of willows along the high-water line, the pearly arrays of mussel shells, the heavy installments of stones, even the astonishing assemblages of junk and debris—all are accomplished in intricate detail and abundance, gorging the eyes on complexity, and brought to you, for free, by the forces of nature. Even the ribbony swirls of eddies are a wonder. To one not sleepwalking through life, a river bank, as well as being a sensual smorgasbord and a scavenger’s delight, is a theological event.
There’s more, too: the river is a great collector and re-distributor, forever leaving wonders along its length for those lucky enough to catch sight of them. On a recent trip upriver to California, Ohio, at the foot of the wistfully named El Dorado street, we found, among other things, the carcass of a beaver—what in the world was it doing there, within humming earshot of the huge I-275 bridge, and less than twenty yards from a low, frowning concrete block building with an Iron Horsemen sign over its door? We also discovered a great rusty square of heavy sheet metal, upon which a few of us assembled an arrangement of stones, driftwood, and bones for some other pilgrim to stumble upon in surprise. It later came back to Purcell Marian with us in an art project, the base for a sculpture by Nick Christen that became, for a season, a part of the Course of The River Collection. You never know what gifts will be presented by the ever-presenting river. During our canoe trip down the Ohio from Shawnee Lookout on the Great Miami in the pre-gambling-boat towns of Aurora and Patriot and Lawrenceburg and finally Madison, from out in the middle, on a high sunny day in August, Jimmy Quinlivan and I had watched a bald eagle, nearly unheard of in those parts, fly with us, parallel to the shore, for nearly a mile. And on our trip that afternoon, decades later, to the beach behind Clark Montessori, Drew Dempsey and Dane Baumgartner stumbled upon a message in a bottle.
My second grade class at Crosby Elementary is learning about oceans. Scientists use messages
in bottles to study currents. My name is Marina Annunziata. I am 7 in a half years old.
I have a little sister named Kylie. She is five years old. My favorite food is pizza.
My favorite color is green. I love animals. Please recycle this bottle.
Sincerely, Marina Annunziata.
What a gift! A child whose name might be ocean—mar, or something close to it, linguists tell us, is the Indo-European root for “sea,” and provides many Indo-European words, including such English cognates as marine, marsh, and meershaum. Here, along this river whose ultimate destination is the sea, a girl named Marina studies the ocean, and leaves a message for us to stumble upon and wonder over. Here, along this river which is ever-renewing, ever-appearing before us, appears a girl whose last name remembers the annunciation, when the angel told Mary she would bear the son of God—and which would lead, a few months later, to the Epiphany—that revelation of the divine in our own time and space. If such a set of coincidences were set forth in a novel, no one would believe them.
Our educations often overlook the local—as if there could be no such wonders as this annunciation of Marina Annunziata— nothing of interest or significance or historical or geographical importance—in our own place. As if all adventure were always somewhere else, and not at our own doorstep. As if art only appeared in museums—a finished thing, hung on the wall, displayed on pillars of marble in high-ceilinged galleries. As if there were not a thousand occasions of poetry and drawing and photography in every river walk. Marina Annunziata’s little note is a reminder that creation is ongoing— now— and if we are to be present for the show, we have to keep our eyes and our minds open, and keen. I am continually delighted by the connections that happen in this big small town of Cincinnati—people who know people who know people who know just about anyone you need to know, families interrelated over generations, the same family names showing up in the honor rolls of high schools for decades. In the upcoming fall elections, no less than five graduates of the high school I teach in are among the candidates for mayor and city council. Two I had in class; the incumbent mayor I missed having in class by three months—he graduated in June of the year I started teaching in August. My wife’s mother and father were born and raised here in Cincinnati, and shopped and ate ice cream and went to the movies in establishments within a three-minute walk of where we now live. My pastor back at St. Peter’s in Steubenville, Cronan T. Molloy, a graduate of the old Purcell High School, most certainly sat in rooms I have taught in, and was even a visitor in our present house, half a century before we bought it. You never know: the very word “adventure” means “what is to come”—it’s more a question than the name of a sure thing.
There are, I think, slow adventures and quick adventures. Quick adventures are those like the exploits of Odysseus or Beowulf, with climactic moments of intense passion and consequence—will Odysseus survive Poseidon’s wrath and make it ashore one more time? Will he outwit the demi-goddess (and overcome what I imagine to be his own ambiguous lingerings as Calypso’s love-slave) and escape? Will Beowulf defeat Grendel, or will his short career as hero be snuffed? As metaphors for the kinds of trouble life tests us with, these are fine enough indeed. But I think what I want to call slow adventures may be equally valuable, and perhaps even more indicative of how the universe works, and of our purpose in it.
A slow adventure takes place over the scope of your entire life. It may begin without your even noticing it: a day in flood-time, for example, when you’re five, and walking with your grandfather between the rails of the Pennsylvania tracks at the foot of Logan Street in Steubenville, Ohio, near the headwaters of the Ohio, just across from West Virginia. The river is so high you’re sloshing through it, stepping from tie to tie. Then, just ahead of you, a carp, a great golden one, is slapping and thrashing, trying to escape the water between the rails. It flips over into the flood, and is gone. Part of yourself, attached instantaneously in that shared moment of vision, voyages the river with it, in the fluency of dream, all the rest of your life.
But you do not know that on that day, something of your life began to unfold, to effloresce outward, and that it would involve the rest of your years to pursue it and to explore its meaning. It would send you into the river in a small narrow boat, downstream, paddling hard through storms and dark. It would bring you into a small river town in southern Indiana, on the day that Elvis Presley died, and teach you something about American culture through the tears of the waitresses in the little diner where you ordered lunch. It would bring you into contact with other wanderers in time and space along its banks: with Harlan Hubbard and Reuben Gold Thwaites and Clark B. Firestone and the extravagant Constantine Rafinesque; with John James Audubon and Micajah Harpe and Tim Russell and John Knoepfle, and all the other warriors, heroes, poets, scamps, scoundrels and plain good men hanging out during, or after, or just before the battle of life in the wine-bottled willows where they cook their driftwood-smoked hashes and catfish stews and wait to see what’s going to happen, or not happen, next.
The river is one of those slow adventures. Its influence is gradual, subtle, unconscious. Its first advances into the spirit are like the basement seeps in houses too close to the water, houses that are adventures themselves, erected in hope one season but liable to being swept utterly away in the next. As the river comes up into those dwellings, so it rises in the house of the spirit. Sometime later, it may rise in flood, and a book you’ve read, or a day you’ve spent along its shores, or a foray you’ve made to the river museum in Marietta, brings it brimming over into consciousness: suddenly you know what it is you are doing. You are answering the river’s call to life. It presents you with a hundred potential stories, an abundance of settings, settings as exotic as tiny islands and as mundane as gob heaps steaming on its banks. It is ever-unreeling, like that famously lost panorama, painted on a canvas an entire mile long, wrapped carefully around upright drums and unrolled before rapt audiences as a kind of early motion picture. Depicting the entire Mississippi and Missouri River banks, it was created by George Banvard, an Ohio River boy from Louisville, and was exhibited, reports claim, “all over the civilized world.”
Teaching, of course, is another slow adventure. The patient instilling of habits—using a dictionary when reading, proofreading an essay or poem carefully, re-reading and noodling difficult passages until they make sense, casting and re-casting a sentence until it sings—none of these comes quickly. There is no equivalent in the classroom of a last-minute winning shot in a soccer match, so the kinds of gratification are more subtle, more slow. But they do come—students do respond, as beans and potatoes, do, to cultivation. I use the metaphor deliberately. It was Wendell Berry who said that a community's most important commodity is the minds of its students, and that the cultivation of those minds is of supreme importance to a nation. But this kind of work takes time, and the gratifications are gradual, like the slow rises and falls of a summer river, like the frosty ripening of persimmons.
The Course of the River has been, like its subject, unpredictable, sometimes difficult. The various levels of enthusiasm and commitment of the students have made our job more challenging than in some other classes; the absolute necessity of getting our students out on field trips is often unwieldy—our short school bus dedicated to field trips is pretty much crammed when we all climb aboard. The readings in both science and literature are often demanding, taking some of our students to the limits of their comprehension. Finally, there is one of the most difficult frustrations that teachers deal with—the difference between the level of our own hopes and expectations, and the reality of our students’ commitment and achievement. But through it all, there is one affirming constant: the river remains, ever hauling the past before us for study and reflection, literally presenting us with the present, and ever promising the future, just downstream.
Far below our observation post on the bluffs overlooking the river at the end of Ingleside Avenue, four blocks from school, we can see, set on concrete blocks and almost completely hidden by a grove of cottonwoods, an old boat, maybe twenty or twenty-five feet long, wooden, with a windowed cabin and the name “Rock And Roll” painted on its peeling bows. Nicki and I and our students have gazed at it during each visit, imagining fixing it up, dropping a new engine into it, and launching forth on river voyages daily.
It might happen. But even if it never does, the idea itself is the source of a calm delight, as the anticipation of any desired journey is delightful, almost as good as the trip itself. The river calls, in the haunting whistle of an old-time steamboat, in the lilt of its summer green waves ashore, in a note or a poem left by one of its thousand pilgrims. And though we may travel it mostly in the imagination, it nevertheless is a place inhabited by the real, whose beauties and marvels still awaken and refresh the mind that lingers for an hour, or an afternoon, beside it.
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