Ben’s Poetry Corner, aka “The Reading Room”

The fourth night of our trip, on Refugee Beach, many of us were lucky enough to listen to Ben read this poem. For those of you who missed it, and for those of you who want to feel it again, here is Rainer Maria Rilke’s first poem from the Duino Elegies. (This is the MacIntyre translation, Ben).

The First Elegy

Who, if I shouted, among the hierarchy of angels
would hear me? And supposing one of them
took me suddenly to his heart, I would perish
before his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I restrain myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we use then?
Not angels, not men, and the shrewd animals
notice that we’re not very much at home
in the world we've expounded. Maybe on the hill-slope
some tree or other remains for us, so that
we see it every day; yesterday’s street is left us,
and the gnarled fidelity of an old habit
that was comfortable with us and never wanted to leave.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of welkin
feeds on our faces--for whom wouldn't it stay,
yearned-for, gently disappointing night
that wearily confronts the solitary heart?
Is night more easy on lovers? Ah, they only
hide their fate from themselves by using each other.
Don't you know that yet? Throw the emptiness from your arms
into the spaces we breathe, so maybe the birds
can feel the expanded air, more ardently flying.

Yes, the springs needed you. And many stars
expected you to feel them. A wave rose
toward you in the past; or as you walked by
an open window, a violin yielded itself to someone.
All this was assignment. But could you handle it?
Weren't you always distraught by anticipation,
as if all this announced a sweetheart’s coming?
(Where do you think you can hide her,
what with those great strange thoughts running in and out
of you and often staying for the night?)
But when you yearn, then sing of the girls who were lovers:
the fame of their passion has not been made immortal enough.
Those you almost envy, the deserted ones you found
so much more loving than those who had been appeased.
Ever newly begin the praise you cannot accomplish.
Remember: the hero keeps going, and even his ruin
was only a subterfuge for achieving his final birth.
But nature, exhausted, takes the lovers back
into herself, as if she hadn't the strength to achieve it
a second time. Have you thought enough of Gaspara Stampa,
so that any girl whose lover ran off will feel,
from the heightened example of this loving woman:
“Ah, might I be like her!” Should not these oldest
sorrows finally become more fruitful for us?
Isn’t it time that we lovingly free ourselves
from the beloved and stand it, although we tremble,
as the arrow stands the bowstring, tense to be more than itself?
For abiding is nowhere.

Voices, voices. Listen, my heart, as hitherto only
saints have listened, so that the mighty call
lifted them from the earth; but they kept on kneeling,
these impossible ones, and paid no attention
so hard they were listening: Not that you could bear
the voice of God--far from it. But hear the wind’s blowing,
the uninterrupted tidings created from silence,
they sweep toward you now from those who died young.
Whenever you went into a church in Rome or Naples,
did not their fate speak quietly to you?
Or loftily an inscription charged itself upon you,
as recently the tablet in Santa Maria Formosa.
What do they want of me? I must clear away gently
the semblance of injustice that sometimes hinders
a little the pure movement of their spirits.
True, it is strange to live no more on earth,
no longer follow the folkways scarcely learned;
not to give roses and other especially auspicious
things the significance of a human future;
to be no more what one was in infinitely anxious hands,
and to put aside even one’s name, like a broken plaything.
Strange, to wish wishes no longer. Strange, to see
all that related fluttering so loosely in space.
And being dead is hard, full of catching-up,
so that finally one feels a little eternity.
But the living all make the mistake of too sharp discrimination.
Often angels (it’s said) don't know if they move
among the quick or the dead. The eternal current
hurtles all ages along with it forever
through both realms and drowns their voices in both.

In the end, those taken early no longer need us;
one is gently weaned from earthly things,
even as he tenderly outgrows the breasts of his mother.
But we who need such mighty mysteries,
we for whom blessed advancement so often comes from grief:
could we exist without them? Is the legend in vain,
that once in the lamentation for Linos, the daring
first music pierced the barren numbness, and only
then in frightened space, which an almost godlike youth
suddenly forsook forever, the void began to feel
that vibration which now enraptures, consoles and helps us?

Selection from Breaking Into the Current: Boatwomen of the Grand Canyon, by Louise Teal

“We river travelers are both awed and comforted by the immensity of the Grand Canyon. We are alternately wet and dry, delighted and scared, silly and reverent, social and solitary. Intense heat slows us down; cold water revives us. Our concerns simplify. We take time to notice details: the veins on a dragonfly’s wings, the feel of a smooth river-worn stone. At night, as the river softly murmurs, we gaze out into the heavens. Something inside us responds. We remember forgotten feelings. We have revelations. And we have fun. Occasionally we catch glimpses of the Canyon rim. But as time passes, the world beyond the rim becomes more and more unreal. No longer strangers, we have become a tribe that has always lived with the flow of the river. Even our first days on the river seem like distant memories. We have become totally immersed in the Grand Canyon.”

A special tribute to our guides Andy, John, (Matt), Keith, Sara, and Ben,

From the story “Havasu” taken out of a book of river guide’s stories, There’s This River, edited by Christa Sadler.

The background is that a party has just reached lower Havasu when a flash flood hits. One of the clients is washed down the stream, and a guide lunges after her, finally dragging her to land hundreds of yards down river.

“…A life was in the balance and Whitney had about two seconds to scope the thing out. He jumped in without hesitation and now he has that forever and nobody can take it away from him. It’s all his own. He saved that woman’s life for sure…

“Why is it we do this job anyway, and what exactly are we after if it isn't what happened to Whitney or at least something similar… one of the thousand little intangibles that are forever cropping up, which have nothing to do with fame or fortune but rather just living your life well in a beautiful place that'll keep you honest all the same, that will make you have your act together from time to time?”

Excerpt from The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, by J.W. Powell

“August 15th Clouds are playing in the canyon today. Sometimes they roll down in great masses, filling the gorge with gloom; sometimes they hang aloft from wall to wall and cover the canyon with a roof of impending storm, and we can peer long distances up and down this canyon corridor, with its cloud-roof overhead, its walls of black granite, and its river bright with the sheen of broken waters. Then a gust of wind sweeps down a side gulch and, making a rift in the clouds reveals the blue heavens, and a stream of sunlight pours in.”

Fabulous Quotes from Fabulous Folks:

“Hey guys, I don’t mean to interrupt, but real quickly: if you look over there for a second, that’s God.” John, pointing out the opening heavens on day 5

“I feel like Lawrence of Arabia!” Orpha, day 2 campsite, windstorm

“Mahstovsky vas nooooohblech, nyash truuu!” Matt’s ancestral Russian tune

“You’re my first child/ someday I lose you/ to some other love.” Andy’s song

“You know how carrying 36 other people’s waste gives you that not-so-fresh feeling?” John, scrubbing up and about to dunk himself in the river to cleanse

“Look out guys, I'm coming through with something you don't even wan na know about.” Andy, coming through with said waste

“As they were three and we were two, I bucked one and Tim Bucked Two.” Leonore’s e.e. cummings joke.

“Not my problem!” John

“I went down the Grand Canyon 30 years ago on a mule, and I thought there had to be a better way to do it.” Orpha, on why she took the trip

“Well, this is only a two person tent if things are going well…” John

“Good morning, Refugees.” John

“coffee. BrEAKfaaaaast! LUUUUUNCH! DINeeeerrr!” Our fabulous guides

“I really admire Andy and John. I think they’re living their lives right.” Ben

“Joo got it, mein! Joo can do it!” Matt, encouraging Davey’s descent of the lower Havasu in the $12 KMart inflatable boat. (We have the photographic evidence!)

“That’s my cuz. He carried me 2 miles across the fields of Wisconsin after a dog bit me in the butt.” --Andy, about Matt

“I'm Daniel, I'm Amy’s Dad. And I'm 24 years old.” Daniel (rewarded with hearty laughter by all)

“I'm Amy and I'm ready to go!!” Adventurous Amy, future All-American-Girls Football Player

How do you know your guides are lying? Their lips are moving!:

“Well, the water in the Colorado is fairly weak in minerals, so the park service hangs those shakers above the water to replenish it with salt and pepper…” (Andy had us going until the salt and pepper part)

“You see this rock? Well, in the 1930s, the Works Project Administration, under the New Deal, was trying to create jobs in the area, so they put people to work making a marker every ten miles along the river. That’s the first marker over there, but don't worry if you don't have you’re camera out. Well be seeing at least… uhhh… 16 more of them…” (John scrambles to get his lie right; we believed him despite the slip-up)

“When Powell came down the river, they set a band up to play for him when he got halfway through. But just as they began to play, a rock slide started up, and a huge rock slammed into the piano, and if you look up to our right, you can see that its still sitting there. Get your cameras out!” (nobody believed this one for a second)

These are, obviously, heavy on our boat and kind of lacking on the Ben/Keith/Sara/Wisconsin side of things. Please send us funny, beautiful, and inspiring quotes from your fellow passengers to share with everyone!

Special thanks to our guides.

You folks astounded us with your constant enthusiasm despite the long days, the short sleeps, the waking up to let out the boat so we wouldn't be stranded, the FOOD, the funnies, and the looking-out for us. We loved all of you, admired you, and took away more than we brought with us. You earned our complete trust and friendship in just 6 days. You did your jobs well, and you gave us all the time of our lives. Thank you.

“What they’re looking for most in a guide is people skills.” --Ben