"River of Light: A Conversation with Kabir"
By John Morgan with artwork by Kesler Woodward
University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 68 pages, 2014, $19.95
“River of Light,” a recent addition to the University of Alaska Press’ Alaska Literary Series, takes readers down the Copper River in the company of masters.
The first master is Fairbanks poet John Morgan, a nationally recognized and widely published purveyor of terse, tightly composed verse. The second is Kesler Woodward, also of Fairbanks, one of the state’s most accomplished and renowned artists.
Along for the ride is Kabir, a 15th-century people’s poet and philosopher from India whose work both sprang from and critiqued Hindu and Islamic traditions and who deeply influenced Sikhism. The final master is a dog named Odysseus who makes a few brief appearances, forever caught up in the moment that is so elusive to the human species.
The narrative poem begins in Chitina, from where Morgan embarks on a raft trip with several companions, including Woodward, who appears midway through the telling. The journey occurs in 2003 and takes place against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, which intrudes itself, unwanted, into Morgan’s thoughts. A child of wartime himself -- he was born at the peak of World War II -- he muses on the violence of mankind as he drifts downstream, far removed from the destruction, but unable to banish it from his mind.
Cadences of the river
The poem quickly acquires the cadences of the river, but the war is fresh in his thoughts as he ponders how “All the rails have been / taken away that brought / the hard wealth from / the mines, / smelted down to make steel for / our wars.”
Soon, however, the river itself captures his attention. “When a sudden squall splutters and / spits, the river / spits back at the sky. / A loon by the bank, flaps spray and / gulps down a fish. We move / without push or / pull on the back / of the seasonal melt that rocks us placidly / like a camel plodding the dunes.”
Here, then, the words of Kabir come in, telling us, “All the streams that flow into / the Ganges, become the Ganges.”
This dance between the immediate and the far away characterizes the entire poem and will be instantly familiar to any who have embarked on a wilderness journey of multiple days. Try as one might to prevent it, the outside world will compete for mental space with the immediate experience that one goes into the wilderness to encounter. Thus, the wry and earthy commentaries of Kabir that Morgan weaves into the text provide a perfect counterpoint. The mystic poet of old persists in accusing us of trying both too hard and too little, but never just enough.
As he drifts along, Morgan’s mind rolls with -- and is rolled by -- the river. He ponders the big mysteries of time and space and the personal mysteries of the death of his mother, the passing of his own youth, and the loss of self-assuredness that accompanied his journey into maturity as a poet. Through it all, Kabir’s is a sometimes supportive and other times mocking voice: “Oh friend, wake up! / The night is over - why / do you go on sleeping?” he asks.
Meanwhile, the life of the river abounds. A bear passes silently through their camp one night as they sleep, leaving only prints to mark its passing. Ravens fly overhead and caw their crazy wisdom. Salmon swim upstream as the party floats down, heading for their own destiny.
For Morgan, however, the most pressing moment arrives when he falls into the river and has to fight for the surface and safety. Not an easy way to attain satori.
Sprinkled throughout are the works of Woodward. Alternately oil, acrylic and colored pencil, the artwork here is deeply evocative of Alaska. Downplaying the scenic wonders that fill the tourist brochures, Woodward sticks mostly to subdued points of our landscape that many of us find more beautiful than Alaska’s famed locales.
A raven, something most Alaskans see every day of their lives, stands on the riverbank, focused and alert. The rock wall of a canyon comes down into the river and is reflected back up. A sandbar covered with the debris of old trees rises up from the water. There is an achingly gorgeous painting of black spruce silhouetted against a pale sky with the river in the foreground, the quintessential Alaskan scene that for some of us will always signify home.
Riot of subtlety
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Woodward’s work is how the muted colors and deliberately blurred imagery explode off the pages. As self-contradictory as this sounds, the artwork is a riot of subtlety. Only someone in full command of his or her powers could fashion this.
The paintings and drawings are well-suited to Morgan’s writing, which also exudes subtlety. Employing understatement and a minimum of words, he does the work of a truly skilled poet, leaving most of the page empty so the reader can fill it in. It’s easy to see why he and Woodward have collaborated. Their approaches are greatly complementary, and one hopes this will be the first of more joint ventures.
As Morgan and his compatriots float farther down the river, the war and the daily concerns that had troubled his mind recede and the author finds his way into the moment. Here he is instructed by that fourth master, Odysseus, who “rolls / ecstatic in the sand.”
“So much / of this / dog’s life, he seems to say, is like / old legends scribbled in the sand. You / better get your / licks in while you can.”
That is precisely what Morgan and Woodward have done with this beautiful piece of elegant word craft and art.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.