Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
The Boat in the Storm, Henri Rousseau (after 1896). Image: Wikimedia Commons.
So hard to know which shape you’re supposed to breathe with. Or that’s what you say to yourself in the trappings of a clock closet with tinted windows of no exact economical epoch. They have a charm unto themselves like grandsires boarding a riverboat, gambling with fated history, its sedentary grammars, unforgiving marshes, broad and encroaching yet devoid of real descriptive as smokestacks replenish the sky, marring the vista but regaining what was so regal to behold—like the very passengers coming in and out of focus, nothing too erratic about them, tired as we all are, or at least I am.
Think of it another way: the toy deck of a bottled ship reflected in the eyes of some wayfarer ancient as the nightingale. The object has little historical value even in trying to remind us of what it no longer or could mean. There’s really little room to imagine someone affixing names to all the infinitesimal passengers who’ll never squeeze upon the thimble-sized ship. What garments worn, what passions stowed or tucked like so, what the weather said to those for whom it was their last passage.
The riverboat turns panoramic, a monolithic set-piece, superbly two dimensional, varnished by day labor, brighter than the most fastidious railings out on the open seas in the heyday of industry. It sits, awkward, a relative whose name we can’t place, who smiles in contrast to the boredom of the hour. Grubby shoulders lean against the stolid frame of its tenuous design. There’s a look of indestructible plastic to the scene not because of its care but because of its irrelevance, the sense that only things as old as the earth itself are born with both eyes crossed out. Everyone tries yet no one sees the big billboard barge, especially those with good intention, gleeful surging nuptials.
The idea of the riverboat has size, so somewhere in immaculate prefabricated halls with great many windows and unsurprisingly artificial light, a student maps the last cusp and ventricle of its proportions, the wavelength hulk of its anterior, the impacted cube of its cargo. A panel convenes. Some argue about the discretion and wisdom inherent in the suppositions of “the idea of the riverboat.” Namely, whether any idea cannot not be infinite, which is to say, precisely, not that the idea of it need be without space but that it necessarily might surpass surface measurements within time: an extensively expandable phenomena, exponential. This paisley fractal tie might embody more than all the endless conjecture combined.
Which is to say: imagine anything. It has a patterned trace in the mind that allows for it. Surely. Though there’s no hypothetical endpoint to that activity, how the webbing of a discrete image—unfurling, coalescing—might allow by its very nature for eternal additions, infernal mathematic as can be. Samuel Clemens does or does not have a mustache. He did or did not shave today. Whether or not he has precisely 31,000 days left on this planet at the time of the ship’s venturing forth, there remains still an infinite number of ships complete with slightest variations adrift on quantum foam throughout eternity. Perhaps they’re there in the sound-shape “ship” and whether or not activated they still must be brought about. If so, only then does the river not become duration. The boat not equaling the mindspace perceiving all possible crafts.
The riverboat could be actual. A writer on assignment might be on it. Whether an authentic, nautically correct, seaworthy vessel remains neither here nor there, but aboard the ship actuality doesn’t yet have to be disclosed. A man in Tucson has never been on one or much cared to. But dreaming upon said riverboat, it assumes valences of all sorts of family dramas, missed connections, perhaps even the fragrant back skin of an irreplaceable palm. Recalled or endured, alive, it becomes more dense than the sum of all other worlds. Experience animates and underwrites it. Memory colors it. Her stern undersides abide. Not that the riverboat has to be especially meaningful, desirable, but, in Tucson tonight, part of a person dies and the huge cogwheel that turns and churns on muddy water performs an unanticipated dance stoically alone. Quite possibly heroic. The dream writes itself onto a set of arbitrary realities that will always be more precious than whatever we elect to think or suppose we feel, would have liked to believe we knew about the passing gallant belle.
Historical determinations. Social inequities. Gendered happenstance. Racial divides. They all can be and are, in fact, present and yet aren’t aboard the riverboat before we even begin to think of them, even if we never do. Living memory has been affected by the haphazard image we easily founder at and trounce over. For though sea-heaving waves cannot be so easily trampled, a riverbed has a story and that does beg the question. Before you can even pronounce the mythical name of any riverboat captain you’ve traded in murkier, more figurative but nonetheless lethally consequential, waters. A badge outweighs ten thousand public announcements. Whimsical lovers take tickets.
Like a giant child’s fan, oversized and plain, an emblem of the Age of Wooden Seas, she paddles on the clear materializing waters. Into the warp and woof of the riverside’s sedge the lurking hull purchases rest, and one day, the ship’s retirement will have nothing ritualistic about it. The quality of light shifts and the hours turn heavier than all the numb hands buried in the swift leaden currents below. The boat idles, rusts, lodges into a landscape’s wharf as it disassembles, reemerges every so often nostalgically—a keychain, now a penknife, now a slogan or theme park with at least the consolation that her white dislocated associations partake memorialization. A film’s shot on location. TV shows, home videos, some CD with charming though slipshod production. Water Gamblers, River People, Inside the Pirate South. Producer with last name Stevedore. A tattoo forms with eerie similarity to the silhouette of the very same ship that broke down on this very spot and basically died upon these banks quite long ago.
No one wants to mention riverboats, think of them, read them, or hear any more academically sanctioned monographs detailing their uncanny condensation of Americanized ingenuity. An uncompromising moratorium has been placed on the name. It will no longer appear in this poem. Some will miss it as others begin the next close-to-but-not-quite craze, inventions of sexier, more profitably controversial matter. Tales of spinning jennies, parachutes, steamships, human hauls bandied about the board room, among school cafeterias, around all-night diners, inside chintzy motels. A highly addictive app has just been launched. Ten dozen people in your home district read this, as does your local assemblyman. So too others in slums and on yachts, with kidneys in transit, persons of consequence, select VIP courtesy members atop barren highrises.
Sea shanties weep. College freshman re-enroll in Introductory Spinoza. Bitches be flippin’ and somewhere, in the long gargantuan eaves with hickory thick-limbed off the bayou, around the mouth of a harbor, with entirely benign though somewhat mediocre starlight out in full force, the trees whoosh their soothing noise, tides primeval await, and she, unpeopled now, but noble in her plodding self-sanctioned task, rolls lugubriously, majestically, to her appointed rounds.
Adam Fitzgerald is the author of The Late Parade, which will appear in paperback this summer. He is founding editor of Maggy and a contributing editor for The American Reader. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, The New Yorker, BOMBand elsewhere. A Harriet Monroe Fellow at the Poetry Foundation, he will direct The Ashbery Home School this August. He lives in New York City.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.