Sunday, January 11, 2009

At the River

I came across this poem yesterday in The New Yorker. It was a bit intimidating because of its length, but it was worth the read. It's a coming-of-age poem about sexuality. It's incredible.

At the River

by Louise Gluck

One night that summer my mother decided it was time to tell me about
what she referred to as pleasure, though you could see she felt
some sort of unease about this ceremony, which she tried to cover up
by first taking my hand, as she made her speech
which was more like a speech about mechanical engineering
than a conversation about pleasure. In her other hand
she had a book from which, apparently, she'd taken the main facts.
She did the same thing with the others, my two brothers and sister,
and the book was always the same book, dark blue,
though we each got our own copy.

There was a line drawing on the cover
showing a man and woman holding hands
but standing fairly apart, like people on two sides of a dirt road.

Obviously, she and my father did not have a language for what they did
which, from what I could judge, wasn't pleasure.
At the same time, whatever holds human beings together
could hardly resemble those cool black-and-white diagrams, which suggested,
among other things, that you could only acheive pleasure
with a person of the opposite sex,
so you didn't get two sockets, say, and no plug.

School wasn't in session.
I went back to my room and shut the door
and my mother went into the kitchen
where my father was pouring glasses of wine for himself and his invisible guest
who--surprise--didn't appear.
No, it's just my father and his friend the Holy Ghost
partying the night away until the bottle runs out,
after which my father continues sitting at the table
with an open book in front of him.

Tactfully, so as not to embarass the Spirit,
my father handled all the glasses,
first his own, then the other, back and forth like every other night.

By then, I was out of the house.
It was summer; my friends used to meet at the river.
The whole thing seemed a grave embarassment
although the truth was that, except for the boys, maybe we didn't understand mechanics.
The boys had the key right in front of them, in their hands if they wanted,
and many of them said they'd already used it,
though once one boy said this, the others said it too,
and of course people had older brothers and sisters.

We sat at the edge of the river discussing parents in general
and sex in particular. And a lot of information got shared,
and of course the subject was unfailingly interesting.
I showed people my book, Ideal Marriage--we all had a good laugh over it.
One night a boy brought a bottle of wine and we passed it around for a while.

More and more the summer we understood
that something was going to happen to us
that would change us.
And the group, all of us who used to meet this way,
the group would shatter, like a shell that falls away
so the bird can emerge.
Only of course it would be two birds emerging, pairs of birds.

We sat in reeds at the edge of the river
throwing small stones. When the stones hit,
you could see the stars multiply for a second, little explosions of light
flashing andn going out. There was a boy I was beginning to like,
not to speak to but to watch.
I liked to sit behind him to study the back of his neck.

After a while we'd all get up together and walk back through the dark
to the village. Above the field, the sky was clear,
stars everywhere, like in the river, though these were the real stars,
even the dead ones were real.

But the ones in the river--
they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas,
not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike.

When I got home, my mother was asleep, my father was still at the table,
reading his book. And I said, Did your friend go away?
And he looked at me intently for a while,
then he said, Your mother and I used to drink a glass of wine together
after dinner.

Even though the poem can be straight-forward, there are a lot of other little things going on within the poem that are a bit deeper, i.e. the stars in the river at the end of the poem. "Real stars" versus dead stars and fake stars. Even at the beginning of the poem when her father has a glass of wine with the Holy Ghost, interesting to be brought up in a poem about sex. Religion and sex, often paired together, but definitely with the stance of her mother--not as pleasure, as procreation, wait until marriage (hence the title of the book she gave her). Wine also alludes to religion as well, brought up multiple times in the poem, first with her father, then her friends, and ending with her father again.

I am also curious about the title. Why emphasis on the river? Because that is where she really learns about her body and sex, more than from the textbook, her mother, her father? The fact that it takes place at a river is symbolic in its own way. Waters/rivers are life sources, as sex is as well (also with reference to birds birthing in eggs). See, there's so much going on here...

The poem has many layers which I think makes a good (great) poem.

So, what do you think of "At the River" and what else do you take from it?

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