Reflections on Rivering, a collection of poems by Dean Kostos

Shores of Walker Lake by Edward Sheriff Curtis featured on the cover of Dean Kostos's poetry collection "Rivering"

Shores of Walker Lake featured on the cover of Dean Kostos’s poetry collection “Rivering”

For many, the best poetry evokes emotion by invoking human experience. For me (student of Harold Bloom and erstwhile poet), the best poetry invokes poetry—its heritage and craft. The best poetry plays with itself—reading it is like watching a peep show.

          Come to the water as to a page.
          Point your fishing-rod and trawl,

          scrawl the muddy floor.     [Shores of Walker Lake]

Dean Kostos’s Rivering is more than a story of a man meeting his troubled past; it is an illustration of a man meeting the poet he is to become. Rivering is about penetrating, and wounding,…and what is born of the wound—what flows forth—in the service not of life but of poetry.

          He sees a shadow leak from his sleeve,
          trickle dark as oil.     [Wound]

The first poem, “Shores of Walker Lake,” was inspired by a 19th-century photograph by Edward Sheriff Curtis (shown on the cover of the book) of a native American boy penetrating the placid surface of a lake with his fishing rod. The reflection of the boy (the drowned “you”—what you were and are to become) and his extended rod, on the surface of the lake meet the real rod and boy at the point of penetration, in a “>”pointing towards the future.

Though the past nudges
my back, I block it

with the lime-green rind
of my parasol, step

over the border into
the present. Now,

I’m the future’s sacrifice, my face
an immaculate wound.     [Is Facelessness Modern?]

Throughout the book, paper, water surface, skin, canvas, or syntax are pierced, pressed, punctured, drawn from, or wounded with pole, palette knife, language, or fist. Writing is an act of impaling…the image of yourself.

“Consider the word drawing,” my art
teacher begins. “Think of it as drawing
something out as you draw lines on a newsprint
pad, leaving inessentials behind.”     [Lesson]

There is a flow to Rivering—not the motion of space or time, but the motion of language bursting the stasis of past real-life hang-ups or the frozen moments and desires depicted in statues and paintings, real or imagined.

                                    …yellow
                                    shone through the kitchen window

                                              where he consoled his mother
Green sprouted from charred soil,

below a moldy sun.
Red scribbled:             fires, blood,

shriveled kisses.               He tried to say goodbye, but paint
                                              eluded him, coagulated

onto mirrored shards, knifed
in a circle, reflecting an empty room,

                                               where he swung—
                                               tongue of a mute bell.     [Last Painting]

The progression is evident in the book’s three parts. After Part I, in which the persona confronts biological baggage, he moves on to engage his artistic origins in Part II, in several poems about the visual arts and ekphrasis: a refolding of art.

A daimon surges up from soil,
          up through my guts

like a circular saw. I am split,
          un-numbed.

This glazed tableau glisters
          in wind. Another trickle…

In a minute, or thirty-five
          years, a flesh foot sheds

its hull, a shin its casements:
          thigh     heart     mouth.     [Statue in the Line of Perspective]

In “The Painter of Self-Portraits,” the first poem in Part II, we hear the artist playing with his aesthetic parentage and destiny. He frolics in the lap of father Whitman in three apotheoses of the master. Boldly, he identifies with Crane, who, we know, physically became one with the image of himself in the mother gulf of Mexico. The persona has a new parentage now—Whitman, Crane, Stevens, Celan—to which he is returning.

                 … The inner sentence,
I’ve come to see, is always unfinished.
Knowing this truth, a boy
stands outside an abandoned house,

looking up at its broken windows, his hands
clasped, his voice calling to reclaim
someone whose absence infects, infects…     [On the Difficulty of Reading Paul Celan]

In Part III he takes flight, like a fledgling from a nest:

Moon-plucked waves
leap toward the bluffs above memory,
site of your childhood home—sight

of agon, ago.     [Tower of the Moment]

He returns to his origins in Mediterranean culture and confidently addresses peers such as contemporary exiled Slovak poet Daniel Simko, though the two never met.

…In your adopted
          country, an eagle curves talons

round an unfinished pyramid,
          an omniscient eye

weeping. And you and I, though we
          never knew each other,

return to our respective exiles,
          to dig in arid soil,

to plant ashes, coaxing
          suns to bloom.     [Garden]

In “Egyptian Cure for the Liver” we hear the persona reclaiming the image of Stevens’ gilt bird from “Of Mere Being”—that grand inscrutable image that terrified us all—and transforming it into a baby pigeon that is plucked by charlatans and pressed into a sick person’s navel until it dies, having siphoned out the disease.

And the pain felt by the circular saw rising up from the ground and splitting the persona in two in Part II (“Statue in the Line of Perspective”) gives way to the persona himself weilding a knife.

The spine of spirit
          is the portrait remaining
                    when a blade flays form. [Standing Knife, Pinon, and Morning Glory]

The poet detaches, disappears.

…Unsee, undo,
exhortations, until I too
was unseen, undone.      [Rivers of Hades: Lethe]   

He dives into the wreck of the four rivers of Hades, carefree as an immortal. The rivers in Rivering are full of the dead in reflection, in both senses of the word.

Saw, was…
I was what my eyes drank,
reflected palaces and gardens—     [Rivers of Hades: Lethe]

The book ends with the gurgling of the ”ghost river” of Siena—underground aquaducts which will feed him the stuff of his past to use in the service of his art. Many would think, “How horrifying,” but I think, “How resourceful!”

There’s so much of Siena, the threads
that once emroidered its banners

have tangled. A seamstress with wounded
fingers cuts it along the seams.

Gardeners, tailors, priests scissor bodies
from souls, hacking perforations—

Siena gurgling each name from the mouth
of its underground river.     [Siena]

About Ruth Zamoyta

Communications strategist, project manager, épée fencer, poet.

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