Book Review

Kathleen Graber’s The River Twice troubles the distinction between past and present. While reading, I recalled a quote from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another.” Rather than eschew the idea of time altogether, Graber’s collection reimagines time—perhaps as a cyclical rather than linear motion, but more likely as an all-encompassing surrounding material, like air or water. In “Impasto for the Parietal,” she writes “My mother used to say that it was too easy / to forget the beauty of the place we lived. / And so, lately, I have been trying / to discover the sea by walking into the sea –.”

So too with time—Graber’s speaker wades again and again into the past from the present, the present from the past, rediscovering time anew by immersing herself in this substance, as the title of the collection reminds us, whose unique relation and experience in each moment can never be entirely replicated. Part of this immersion in time results unwillingly; traumatic experiences haunt the speaker, who is unable to separate present necessities from past threats. The River Twice explores life in the ongoing after that follows sudden upheaval—whether that arrives with the death of a brother, the deaths of parents, the end of a marriage, or financial struggle leading to years of hardship. In “Self-Portrait with The Sleeping Man,” for instance, we see how the speaker’s past experiences form an impasto on the present, regardless of current circumstances:

                                                                  Right now, I am trying
to look hard at the shoulders
                                                & curved beak of a hawk
perched on a bare branch as it scans the lawn waiting for something
small to move.
                          I have not forgotten the cold days I paid for beans
& apples with a fist of copper coins.
                                                         Another way to be awakened.
And though I have never slept in a doorway – or rather only once,
in Paris, when I was just nineteen –
                                                         now I cannot not see the places
I could, if I ever had to, put myself down to rest.

The River Twice delivers its observations out of chronological order—details of the past arriving before we, as readers, have encountered that experience in real time through the speaker’s eyes. This is just one of the ways the collection leans into return and its impossibility. Two fragments of Heraclitus precede the opening poem, one of which provides inspiration for the collection’s title (“You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on”). Despite Heraclitus’ proclamation, Graber’s speaker wades into the past in alternate gestures of hope and desperation. The speaker probes the same memory in poem after poem only to find that she cannot reenter it; she must bring what is left into the present. And what is left? Through explorations of death and debt, these poems bring to light how loss is not disappearance or disconnect, but presence manifested differently.

              In another life, I once held a palm-sized chip of driftwood
shipworms had laced in just this way. I can still peer through it

in my mind, but I cannot raise it up, here, today, in this quiet light.
Yet, sometimes it seems as though I have only just now set it down,

beside the thin gold bangle my mother gave me, on a little table,
beside the iron bed in which I used to sleep.
– “Postscript from the Heterochronic-Archipelagic Now”

The cover image, a still life of apples and cups, manifests the collection’s obsession with “still life” in many senses. Graber’s collection captures the detail of the present in an attentiveness so essential because it cannot be preserved, while the post-crisis speaker of the poems must find her way through the still of living, the body moving on with practical concerns even while the mind returns repeatedly to its most stricken moments.

The unconventional timeline in The River Twice serves as a form of meaning-making of the speaker’s emotions and experiences. Attempted returns often arise through patterns observed in the present that transport the speaker back to a prior moment, in what seems to be another life. This recognition of patterns begs the question: Is all of this grief and hardship leading to something? The other epigraph from Heraclitus states, “Wisdom is one thing—to know the intelligence by which all things are steered through all things—it is unwilling and yet willing to be called by the name of Zeus.” Like the fragments of Heraclitus that survive today, in Graber’s poems, whatever could be considered the fact of a memory fades quickly after the experience ends. Yet something—wisdom?—remains or persists.

Graber’s speaker distrusts and complicates the elevation of wisdom as something earned or won from hard experience, even as the collection searches for meaning through patterns across time:

                                                                        Soon we will repay our bor-
rowed hours. But by then may even the ponderous be too drunk on the
end of winter to care. It’s simple: We’d rather set out in the dark than arrive
there. If wisdom is a myth, it is one of the better ones. More exacting in its
ways than love—for, unlike love, it schools us again & again in its own

One of the ways The River Twice engages with this question of wisdom is through epigraphs, which, in addition to creating a present inseparable from the past that shaped it, also embody the lines of inquiry this collection pursues around weathering and loss. Graber writes, “Heraclitus, whom the crash of time has left / in fragments, saw in the cosmos a harmony of tensions.” Part of this collection’s preoccupation with time stems from the loss of loved ones who, like Heraclitus’ surviving fragments, only remain on Earth in the minds and writings of those who outlived them. The work of these epigraphs and the poems coincide—both preserve the lives and thoughts of those lost, while acknowledging that this is a deficient immortality, able to capture and communicate only fragments of their brief existence.

Perhaps it is wisdom that manifests as faith in the many presences ordering the universe. A series of epistolary poems titled “America” represent one method of identifying or creating meanings in a vast, unknowable system whose existence patterns our lives. Graber’s speaker writes to America as to a deceased or estranged relative – reporting observations of her and others’ daily lives seemingly without expectation of response. One poem, “America [October],” begins:

America, some days I can barely read the postcards
I have been getting each week from a friend, broken
loose & adrift for months along your back roads & highways.
Pictures of mountains & monuments, postmarked,
but with no return address: West Virginia, Nashville,
Oklahoma, Deadwood, South Dakota. So that, like you,
my mailbox has become merely the idea of listening
into which he speaks but out of which I offer
no reply.

And yet there is a call for answer in writing into this distance—this is not a break-up letter seeking closure but the act of a subject writing through loss, both seeking to understand and to be understood by the forces that have shaped her. These letters know America as the unwilling Zeus, worshipped as creator and protector yet distant enough to evade responsibility and blame for the ways lives can turn suddenly, scaldingly cruel. Yet there is also a vulnerable hope for reassurance in the ways these letters reach toward a source, open to the possibility of reciprocation or explanation as to how we—America and her citizens—might have, and still do, belong to each other, molded by time and influence to familiarity, for better or worse.

The River Twice knows the value in staying awake to the present moment and all that accompanies it. Graber reminds us that to “stare into the immensity, half-thinking / I am executing some moral obligation to stand on the Earth / as consciously as I can for as long as I am able” is maybe, in the end, all we can do. Yet the compassion and beauty that results turns her effort of consciousness into a gift of shared awareness. This is a collection I’ll return to, time and again.


About the Reviewer

Annmarie Delfino is an MFA candidate in poetry at Colorado State University.