January 27, 2007

Back to the River of No Return

As an author, it is always interesting to me, who comes across my writing and responds to it enough to quote from it or use it in some other way. I was recently taking a gander through the blogs and came across a several instances where my poetry was quoted. A couple are worth noting here. The first was an excerpt from what has become a fairly well known Thanksgiving poem on the web – Where Warmth Means Wood.

The second instance was from the popular Chinese literary blog – Yellow Utopia. Where my poem Back to the River of No Return was mentioned as a good example of a high level of Western U.S. culture http://yellowutopia.spaces.live.com/Blog/cns!9EE0D28A286EE7E6!420.entry– even among the cowboy poetry types in China. Since the majority of the blog is in Chinese, a translation follows at the end of the post. I have to admit that Back to the River of No Return is one of my favorites – even though it is a little on the long side. It is meant to be read out loud or recited. In fact shortly after I finished it, I read it to my wife Kathie who remarked that she could almost hear the music behind the poem. This piece describes an experience I had as a 17 year old kid living in the Salmon River mountains during the summer of 1972. It is western not cowboy poetry. As always here, I have included an audio recording so you can isten along as you read.

Back to the River of No Return
By Paul Kern

Some thirty years past or maybe more,
I spent a summer on the banks by the roar,
Of white water rapids where they make a turn,
On the legendary River of No Return.

It was the river that I came to love,
As she cut through the mountains rising above.
The sky near roads end would captivate you,
As the sun on the waves reflected the blue.

From there to the end there is no road at all,
Mad crashing whitewater encased by the wall,
Of untouched mountains guarding the gate,
To the foam crested river that crosses the state.

A river this wild accepts only her own,
They’re unkempt and unruly and often alone.
The rest are washed out dare they get in,
This turbulent River of No Return.

The river’s a magnet for a colorful bunch,
Of misfits and rogues who’d followed a hunch,
When first they heard that siren’s song,
Winging them off to where they might belong.

Hermits and squatters oft times found a home,
Down hills and mines where they would roam,
And others up yonder in old Grantsville,
Or Leesburg where the Confederacy still,

Lives on in spirit and what’s left of the minds,
Of hermits who still eek gold from the mines,
First dug and mined out just leaving a hole,
By veterans of the war that tested the soul,

Of a nation just coming of age,
Finding part of itself out west in the sage.
Where gold dust littered the beds of the streams,
Tumbling down to this river of dreams.

Dreams of dreams present and past,
Of boom towns that didn’t long last,
Where colors fade and wood beams gray.
Amid the rubble of a livelier day.

Just over the bridge near the end of the road,
Where Panther Creek dumps its violent load,
Of frothy white liquid into the swirl,
Of the river herself at full howl and full hurl.

A road there rises up through the pines,
A dusty dirt road that heads for the mines,
Of Leesburg and the crumbling town,
Where no one is usually hanging around.

Once we got there and parked the truck,
We jumped out to maybe try our luck,
In looking around for a thing or two,
Just horsing around like young kids do.

Then came a voice from out of a shack,
Or maybe that dugout hidden out back,
Of an old saloon with a westward lean,
A raspy old crackle with a tinge of mean.

A man stooped and crumpled with age,
Came out of his hovel in a fit of rage,
Shaking his fist and giving a show,
That he wanted us to turn back and go.

We approached the old guy shaking his arm,
And seeing that we meant him no harm,
We sat a spell just to bone our jaw,
And for a fleeting moment in his eyes we saw,

Something strange as we sat in the grass,
When he first came to this mountain pass,
A flickering light from out of the past,
Of a girl once loved with a love - his last.

It was a lonely life down in his mine,
Abandoned and left alone to dine,
On berries and game with shirt in a tatter,
It seemed to him now it didn’t much matter.

Unlucky in love and unlucky in life,
His mind was no longer as sharp as a knife,
From all the long years working his mine,
He now would sit, wonder, ponder and pine.

One thing though was lead pipe certain,
Something that somehow healed the hurtin’,
The mountains and the river down below,
Welcomed him back whenever he’d go.

In winter he said, he just watched the snow fall.
In springtime it melts and flows down the wall,
Through puddles and creeks till it’s done,
Flowing to where all the snow pack has come.

At about the same time and with the same speed
To join in the ruckus of the watery steed,
Soaking in spray and covered in white,
Rushing west to the coast by day and by night.

The river returns when mountain lakes freeze,
On the wings of storms brought in by the breeze,
Of westerly winds billowed full of white snow,
That melts and runs back to the river below.

So the river each season always returns,
To the mountains, hills, the trees and then it turns,
To rush out and to rush back and then,
It returns and comes back again and again.

A river this wild knows only her own,
They’re unkempt and unruly and often alone,
But it’s that feeling of home that’ll quietly turn,
Them back to the River of No Return.

Back to the River of No Return

November 16

  西欧一些人喜欢嘲笑美国没有文化传承。也对,本土印地安人留下的且被国民认可的就是一个感恩节,外加一些地名和球队名。也不对,因为美国是一个移民国家,并不是没有文化传承,而是太多太杂,一时难以,也几乎不可能,融合成一个单一的“民族文化”。  其实,美国中西部的心脏地带(the heartland),也有一种特型文化,只是年代不过几百年,无法和西欧的上千年历史相比。这种特型文化就是“牛仔文化”。按照好莱坞的诠释,牛仔文化的核心成分是粗逛、野性、玩命、充满自我,把法律操在自己手里,让枪支当法官。  真正的牛仔,不管男女(cowboys and cowgirls),都是活生生的人,享受着许许多多你我享受着的文化成分。试举几例——  (一)“牛仔电影”。在这些年动作片和奇幻片盛行以前,牛仔片几乎是好莱坞的主流,牛仔影帝有John Wayne等人。Billy Crystal和Jack Palance(上周刚去世)主演的City Slickers (1991) 算是我看的最后一部牛仔片。  (二)“牛仔诗歌”。几年前,我给国内某诗歌论坛译过一首牛仔诗歌。在美国中西部,每年都有牛仔诗人们的集会,也会评选“桂冠牛仔诗人”(Lariat Laureate)。这里摘录一男一女桂冠牛仔诗人的句子(不是全诗)给大家体验体验:

犹他州的Paul Kern(男):

A river this wild knows only her own,
They’re unkempt and unruly and often alone,
But it’s that feeling of home that’ll quietly turn,
Them back to the River of No Return. 
(Back to the River of No Return, 2003)

加州的LaVonne Houlton(女):  
Oh, a man gets mighty tired
When he's workin' on the range,
And sometimes he'd like to settle
Down in comfort for a change,

With an eight-to-five position
And a cozy little home,
With a car and boat and workshop,
And no call to ever roam.

(Town and Country, 1960s)

Translation from Chinese language Yellow Utopia website:

Hey, Cowboys!

Some people in Western Europe laugh at the U.S. because it has no cultural heritage. It may be true, what the nation recognizes as handed down by the Indians is Thanksgiving, along with a few place names and names of sports teams. But it is also not true, because the U.S. is an immigrant country and not only does not lack a cultural heritage, it has many and varied ones, so that it's hard to point at a single "national culture."

Actually, the "heartland" in the western part of the U.S. has its own unique culture, though it is only a few hundred years old, and can't be compared to the thousands of years of European history. This unique culture is "cowboy culture." According to Hollywood, cowboy culture's central components are crudeness, wildness, gambling, taking the law into one's own hands and letting the gun be the judge.

Real cowboys and cowgirls are active people who enjoy many of the same parts of culture you and I do. For example:

1. Cowboy movies. These days, action films and fantasy films are the rage, but once cowboy movies were Hollywood's main trend, with stars including John Wayne and others. City Slickers (1991) with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance (who passed away just last week) is a recent cowboy film I have seen.

2. Cowboy poetry. A few years ago I interpreted some cowboy poetry for a poetry forum here in China. In the western U.S., a gathering of cowboy poets takes place every year and includes an award for the Lariat Laureate. Here I present poems (in part) by the male and female Lariat Laureates as a sample for the reader:

Paul Kern of Utah (male)
Lavonne Holton of California (female)

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