From the Bow


you’ve always paddled
the bow
         my son

even as a child
managing to stroke
         against awkwardness
with a paddle too long for your years

my own unwieldy fathering
making you
           make do

grace came with your growing

measured by fewer
gunwale scrapes

and vigour lasted
a hundred counts

        and a hundred more
just to prove
you could finish strong

though to be honest
you languished a little
when the crossing was wide
           the wind empty of stories

and the sun
             a hammer
                          on the anvil lake

if morning brought mist
we feathered silently
round every point

to see movement

driftwood on the shore
                        startled into heron flight

cedars antlered
          granite shifting
                     into the bulk of a bear

phantoms for the night’s fire

from the bow
you made your first cast
caught your first fish

and from the bow
you slipped them all back

except for the pike
that swallowed your hook
and forced you to rip the guilt
out of your insides

it still quivers there
        along the line of your jaw

and you learned to read the river
eager to run the dancing white
     the downstream

find the course
                    amidst the coursing

but I made you
throw logs
in the souse holes
to see what they could do to a man

breath churned into foam

then once in a rapid
that surged with my worry
though your spirit
won me to the attempt

we took the dark slick tongue
between closing walls of rock

a deep channel
tentacled with sweepers

kept tight
to the inside
at the turn
                 away from the undercut bank
                 the sucking

back ferried across the current
to the brink
                           searching for the break
                           in the line of the ledge

                           found it just before the plunge

shot through the gap

caught a roller
                             and couldn’t hold it

I was ready for the splintering
           against a boulder

but with a quick pry
                                     off the gunwales
                                                                    from the bow

you cleared us
past the rock

with only a glancing kiss

and we ran the haystacks
and plunging
like rodeo riders
                           your paddle in high brace

                                          your shouts rising like the spray

till you cut
into the quiet of an eddy
                                 into a mid-stream stillness
                                 where time seemed to swirl in contraries
a haven
where a wading boy
                       might catch water striders
                       all the calm day long

if not for
the river in the artery
urging him
                     to lean downstream
                     hang his weight out on the paddle
                     feel the pull on the blade
                     swing the bow into the current again

run the rock garden
to the end

so now I know
it is time
                my son

for you
to take the stern

time for you
to decide
             which rapids should be run
                    marble-smooth into the chute
             which portage landings made
                    sheer ascent above a thunder drop

time too
for you to feel the rub
of the centre thwart
on your shoulders

and find the point of balance



Rae Crossman
Published in The New Quarterly, Issue 92

Set for speaking voice and clarinet by R. Murray Schafer with graphic notation score.

Recorded by Rae Crossman, voice, and Tilly Kooyman, clarinet.