As John Zheng shares in his introduction to the Fall 2018 “Rivers and Waters” issue of Valley Voices: A Literary Review: “Rivers are lifelines of all things in this world, and river plains are cradles of ancient civilizations. [ . . . ] We need the river to live; we need the river to enrich our spiritual life and inspire our creative writing as well.” This beautiful introduction about the importance of rivers and waters in all our lives—in fact, in the very evolution of humankind itself—sets the mood to all of the beautiful poems and images about the rivers and waters that follow.
Valley Voices is a twice-yearly publication from the Mississippi Valley State University. It pulls together essays, reviews, interviews, photographs, and other images that express the experiences of so many talented voices. In this issue, the focus is specifically on rivers and how they have brought us together, torn us apart, or simply allows us to share in their beauty for even a moment.
One of my favorite poems is by Elaine Terranova, “Renoir, Le Pêcheur à La Ligne.” Here, we share in the image of a young couple floating on a river, possibly in a small boat, although it is not clear: “The young man rests / one arm behind and with the other / guides a fishing pole.” Alternatively, “the woman bends / toward an embroidery.” They are each supremely focused on their tasks, but at the same time, beautifully serene, enjoying their time together with the stream, the sunlight, and the quiet of the world around them. I love this image as it is one so close to my own heart. There were so many times in my life where my husband and I would visit a lake or a river to fish and relax. He would often fish while I would work at a cross-stitching project nearby, and even though we were working on different tasks, we were both enjoying each other, nature, and the rivers together, just like the couple described here.
Lois Baer Barr, “Down to the River,” by Lois Baer Barr is another poem I loved, which connects many rivers, dreams, and images, both real and imaginary. The poet shares images from river towns where you can hear “the sizzle of cicadas just before a storm” or where “the river runs slower in summer” and the cold water whirls into the warm currents in these rivers, like the Ohio, Brooklyn, Seville, Rome, and Louisville. The poet even connects to Huck Finn on his raft and joins in the experience in a nightmare of rivers, “in that muddy, bloodstained, pushy water / a barge blows its horn, a flattened wake spreads / almost submerges the raft.” Each image is weaved into the poem to show the beautiful and the ugly, the fun and the scary aspects of rivers, all of which lead to “unfathomable ends.” The images capture how we don’t know where our “rivers” in life will take us, and what adventures we will have on them, but even still, we’re reminded to enjoy every bit of that ride.
Another wonderful poem in this issue is by James Toupin, titled “Making a Lake.” It paints the picture of how a lake might be made—how when trees might be cut down, it can then create a pathway for rainfall and water runoff to gather in a new area, forming the structure that may become a lake. “Only when the first spring downpour / could it be seen what the sawyers’ cutting / had accomplished,” the poet says, and then describes how the water puddles, how stumps form tiny islands in a newly developing lake, and how cattails would sprout and define the shoreline. Even still, the poem wonders if the lake will last, if it will gain enough depth to be able to sustain itself year after year. The idea of how a lake could be formed without plan, without forethought, leads readers consider how the tiniest of actions in our lives can have the biggest of impacts in ways we cannot predict.
This issue also contains a beautiful collection of black and white photographs, each of a different waterfall in North Carolina: the Bridal Veil Falls, Mingo Falls, Dry Falls, Cullasaja Falls, and many others. These images showcase the dynamics of waterfalls and how each waterfall can be so different, and still so stunning.
In addition to many poems and images, this issue also contains a few scholarly essays. “The Father of Waters, The Great Mississippi River” by Andrew Morang caught my attention the most. It details the history of the Mississippi River and how civilization was formed around it. The essay talks about how long the river is, both by itself and with other parts of it included. It talks about the economic impacts of the river, both positive and negative, and discusses in depth the levees built along the river’s shorelines to protect the human settlements along its banks. Included are several diagrams, tables, and pictures referenced in the essay to give a visual aspect of the Mississippi River, resulting in an informative examination of the river and everything about it.
This issue of Valley Voices makes me yearn to visit my own nearby lakes and rivers as soon as possible. It makes me want to listen to the birds along the shores, try to catch the fish just under the surface, experience the tumultuous rapids where the rivers speed up, and enjoy the simple quiet that comes with so many bodies of water. Readers of the issue will find themselves called back to the water that is so vital to our lives.
Review by Jenny Mark