Saturday, April 07, 2007

Rivers Living and Buried

Joe Milutis' recent posts on Impossible Object discuss Part III of Book 3 of 'Paterson', William Carlos Williams long poem sequence of which Book 3 was first published in 1949. One of Joe's posts is an interview with poet Lytle Shaw who refers to the lithological column description in this section of Paterson, interpreting it as a metaphor for America's underlying cultural heterogeneity.

In my view, the lithological column relates quite closely to the poetry that surrounds it. Although Williams doesn't say it, the rocks that are being described are fluvial in origin. We know this by their red colour and lithologies and by the reference to "rock salt of England" which is Triassic in age: a period when alternating deserts and flash flood rivers were the norm.

The sections surrounding the lithological list contains plenty of references to rivers and I think Williams is thinking about how the 'leaping stream' in which fish are 'full speed stationary' and railroad embankments are undermined becomes something leaving a layer of mud ("if only it were fertile"). This allows him to contemplate how the rushing present relates to what will one day remain of us: "the past above, the future below and the present pouring down - the roar, the roar of the present..."

One part of the poem tumbles down the page like sediment settling out of suspension. This makes the link between sediment and language a physical one and I think that is present too in the last verses: "I must find my meaning and lay it, white, beside the sliding water: myself - comb out the language."

Williams also writes of how shells in the river are 'baked by endless dessications into a shelly rime' making a pun on sedimentation and poetry but also using the process of dessication and condensation as a metaphor for the making of verse.

There are other themes as well to do with fertility and death (the river carrying a dead dog) which make me think of the Ganges and Hindu mythology.

1 comment:

Dave said...

It's funny, I was a big fan of Paterson at the very time in my life that I was most besotted with geology, but I never thought to connect the two. Thanks for doing so for me.