In the Hands of the River
by Lucien Darjeun Meadows
Hub City Press, 2022
Reviewed by Sara Slingerland Sheiner
In the Hands of the River could not be a more apt title for Lucien Darjeun Meadows’ debut poetry collection. Set in a time and place that is as ineffable as the river that runs through it, Meadows employs poetry to queer time, space, and perspective to tell a coming-of-age story that spans generations and experiential planes. The book’s title alone signals to the reader that the all-too-usually assumed dualism which tries to divide humans and nature will be broken down here. Meadows’ poems articulate the relationships between body, ancestry, and environment, and how these relationships are simultaneously symbiotic and symmetrical. What happens in the river, the river remembers; what we give to the river in one generation, the river will transmute into another. “What bones did his mother/Throw into the river,” (63) the speaker in Meadows’ book asks, searching for the answers. When Meadows dips his hand into the river to bring out a poem, the waters of the river remain as part of the telling.
Throughout the book, Meadows deposits us into his poems with adverbs and pronouns that buoy us like boats in the shifting narrative: “here,” “now,” “this,” “where,” “that” keep us afloat in poems that feel like vivid recollections. In this way the river is not only a landscape feature in the speaker’s memory but also a ferry through time that can reconnect him with family members and other beloveds. For instance, in the poem, “Thirst,” the speaker says, “Tonight, I follow the song to the river…With a breeze, the river vibrates and breaks/Like a great wing, or a door punctuated with light.” Our guide describes the river like a threshold, like a portal. “Somehow I am standing in the water, now…When I reached for your belt…” “Somehow” the speaker steps into the river “now” and is returned to an earlier time, as he stands just downstream from where the earlier event took place. “I fell to my knees. / You left, and I am still falling, here, and if / I fell forward, I would fall through this river…” Via the river, the speaker can fall into or out of time, memory, and place. In another poem, “Cleave,” the speaker, with his feet dangling in “the darker side of the river,” leans back and falls “wrists-deep, into the body of a deer /…My hand in his stomach, I looked up, up, past / The sycamores… I did not do this. But my hand was inside him…” In these moments it is as if this river is the mythical Styx. Throughout the book, death and disappearance are central themes of Meadows’ lyric contemplation of self, Appalachia, queerness, and family history.
The speaker’s narrative reveals how this complexity can have its effect on an individual level. In one poem, “First Time,” the speaker jumps from a rooftop and in another, “As Telemachos,” into a well, surviving both, and, in both, seeking to be transformed. From poem to poem, we are led through a narrative mediated by the size of the speaker’s body in relation to the affecting landscape. In the opening scene, we are introduced to a speaker at 102 pounds on the roof of his house, contemplating “the ooze/ of organs and blood” and the mountains of snow where there is “Smoke on the horizon from the newest mine.” Air and sky are thought of as “the perfect nothing,” and we get the sense that death for the speaker is not considered an ending, but rather a desire to transmute into that perfection. The river, too, facilitates a dissolution of self. Baptism was once performed in a river, and in some places still is. In practice, baptism is seen as a way to be cleansed and, through it, to be reconnected with a heavenly father figure. In River, the speaker yearns to reconnect with his own father by understanding both their bodies as iterations of the Appalachian landscape, its weather, flora, and fauna: “…Father and I would cross treeline to stand fieldbare, breathing/Wet earth—my red toes reaching like roots into dirt,/His hair plastered over shoulders and back like wolfmane—/To howl and holler into lightning, voices thick with thunder…” (12). Through the poems, the speaker yearns for the river, bone, blood, and sinew of his birthplace to reconnect him to some kind of source.
In the River, so much overlaps—time, family narrative, identity, and memory—and in that overlapping so much is revealed. One cannot help but relate the concept of a river to time as a substance that can be returned to and re-experienced. Lines like “In the sudden twilight, I forget all / I wanted, why I am balanced here” reveal the inherent timelessness of the moments Meadows describes. The “sudden twilight” of any time can cause the “I” to forget all they wanted and why they are “balanced here”— not only within the specific memory being recounted in the poem, but that any sudden twilight has the power to do this. In this way Meadows illustrates how these moments are ongoing for the speaker: that this “now” is also a part of that “now.” Similarly, in “Before the Sirens, My Mother Offers Light,” the poem opens with the lines “This morning, in the kitchen of my childhood, / My mother stands at the sink in a peach sundress.” The speaker is simultaneously bringing us into “this morning” — “this” being a preposition that usually points to an object that is present—and into a particular morning of the speaker’s childhood, a moment long passed. This construction creates a duality that suggests that the mother figure is currently standing in this childhood kitchen, in that same dress, before that same sink. These poems show us how moments of the past are also currently alive in the present. For the speaker, the mother is always standing there: “Now, in the house we lost, my mother has poured/ Out all her water but stands caught in time.” The now of the poem is also the past, is also the memory, is also the now of the now.