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Notes from Open Land
by Wendy Lewis

Shall We Gather at the River?

I walked off trail through the arcing wild raspberry canes, relentless buckthorn and scrub cedar heading down to a part of the river I usually don't visit. Ducking beneath a bent ash, I looked up in time to see a young doe at the water, her white tail flashing. Startled, she wheeled and bounded west along the shoreline, vanishing almost silently into the trees. I grabbed Rocky's collar just in time, and in his pursuit-spirited lunge, he took me down to the ground. Romeo attempted the chase for twenty yards and gave up, circling back. Jack was a mile away, no doubt eating the rabbit he'd spooked from the honeysuckle along the river's edge and chased far into the prairie. The morning sun knifed through the tips of pine, walnut and oak where I lay on my back, still holding onto Rocky's collar. His breath escaped in foggy bursts over my head; ears erect and forward, eyes wide and focused into the woods where the doe had escaped. Saliva dripped from his tongue onto the sleeve of my coat. I squinted, released him and rolled over on my belly, crushing leaves. Birds flitted between low branches. The screech of a red tailed hawk bounced between the jagged bluffs up river, brittle and harsh. I heard a fish jump, slapping back on the water like a huge, shiny, open hand.

Every year for as many years as were remembered in one conversation, a young male college student has drowned in the dark sweep of the Mississippi River where it flanks the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Some postulate that the victims get drunk at one of myriad festivals during the year, lose their internal compass and think they are heading back to campus—step—step—stumble—splash—gone. So many die here, in deference to other university towns perched on river bluffs. St. Cloud State, for one, resides on the Mississippi and hasn't had a drowning in twenty-seven years. But in La Crosse—every year—someone's life is sucked into the swift depths of the Mississippi River.

I had been imagining an earnest, pushing-60, balding hippie with a small, grey ponytail and a big dream meeting us at The Pump House Center for the Arts in La Crosse, encircled by his enclave of devoted dams. I couldn't have been more wrong, save the middle-aged female volunteers. The Pump House presents a monthly poetry reading heralding all manner of literary stars. Juliet the Poet was yet another in a long line of notable headliners, her book The Truant Lover (Nightboat Press) having been released this year. She had recently returned home from an extensive east coast tour, and I was invited to perform a short set of music before her reading that night in La Crosse.

"If you want to drown, this is definitely your destination—come here." That's what David Krump said. He's the author of Ophelia Soft, a poetic lament about silty ghosts crawling from the Mississippi into La Crosse on any given night, and the very poem which made him the recipient of the prestigious Ruth Lilly Foundation prize of 2006. He'll leave the shores of the Mississippi and cleave to the unfamiliar shores of the Thames for seven separate weeks over the next year, studying at Oxford as part of his prize. He was our host that night, together with the magnanimous and delicious William Stobb. Bill is a young professor at Viterbo University and will soon have in hand a collection of his own poetic work (Nervous Systems) proffered by Penguin Books. To add, both of them and Juliet have had their poems grace the pages of heavy-weight literary publications like the Colorado Review, Bellingham Review, Three Candles, Cricket Review, Verse to name a few. I was in rich company sitting at Piggy's with the three of them under broad tungsten lighting, playing out warm-up rituals after sound check. I love and read poetry, but I knew none of the poets of whom they were speaking, so I listened attentively and sipped my Irish whiskey, ignoring Juliet's apologetic entreaties for "leaving me out." I waved her concerns away with the hand dangling over the back of my chair. She should know by now that I love being in over my head. That's where most everything happens.

I was in over my head on two counts that evening; both in the company I was keeping and the fact that I would soon deliver my virgin, solo flight accompanying myself on guitar after twenty years as an "award-winning musician." I kept thumbing that phrase award-winning musician with my fingers like an elusive guitar string for the next forty-five minutes while my fear escalated. I ordered another glass of brown medicine from the young, porcelain-skinned waitress with perfect teeth, her entire life ahead of her. I wondered what her goals were while I reset my dingy, vintage Honda hat and unzipped my faded, navy sweatshirt, stirring the whiskey with a tiny red straw. I have relied on the brilliant musicians I've been afforded all these years who have created the luxurious beds my vocal utterances have bounced and writhed upon. I was both terrified and excited to be perched, at last, on this precipice over dark, open water. My illustriously touted career might be debunked after one short set, during which I could repeatedly crash into the entire length of cliff in my clumsy dive. I decided then and there that I just didn't care about my reputation. I've told my children for years, it's important to do something that scares the shit out of you every day and this was me, practicing what I'd preached. There was no backing out now anyway.

The theatre was warm and cozy and thirty people had shown up—a boon audience for a poetry reading. After a very gracious, daunting introduction, I hopped on stage pretending I knew what I was doing. Mid-way through the set, having cut one song I knew I would not be able to manage after all, given my fright-palsied fingers, I felt myself start to float, enjoying long phrases when I was simply singing and forgetting my fingers, chords miraculously there as if I were not the one executing them. And then, it was over. I took a photograph of the audience with my digital camera, thanked them and exited, stage right.

Juliet took the stage next and delivered her expected brilliance in a more interior voice than I'd heard before, as if she were an informant slowly whispering classified information to counter-intelligence in an airport bathroom with no time to repeat one word of it. I was spellbound—motionless and focused, sunk into my red folding chair. Her words bloomed inside me like tiny, life-altering mushroom clouds.

There was a brief intermission prior to the open-mic event, which was to follow. I slipped outside to smoke a cigarette and escape the room. An old Ginsberg/Kerouac-era hippie approached me to talk about my lyrics and the conversation wended its way surprisingly to and through Nietzsche, nihilism, atheism, ending in my question as to whether or not he'd ever read Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven. He had never heard of it and I was so happy to have thought of it. I hope he remembers, is able to find it and read it—it would make him smile in complicity. Other individuals approached the periphery of our conversation tossing in this and that as we moved back towards the door, giving me thumbs up on my performance, which did much towards helping me let it all go, let it all be what it was or might have been.

Returning to the theatre, open mic began. It was a perfect undocumented film, which I'll never have the pleasure of airing to anyone. A nervous man dressed in shades of spooked doe; a tan, cabled sweater vest over a white and tan checked short sleeved shirt, tan dress pants, bottomed off with brown, faux-Italian shoes. He read from his new collection. The Navy Sweat Pants Man with a heavy lisp earnestly read from the book he'd won at the last poetry reading ticket raffle. A couple of young, self-conscious men ran through their poems in break-neck monotone speed but the vulnerability of their offerings had stunning moments. The old hippie got up there too and gave us a predictable, if choice, rant about everything from the politics of awareness to the fetid streets in some neighborhood. It was lovely beyond words—their words or mine or anything that might be spoken afterwards. We were all caught in the same current. I felt at one with each of them—exposed, bellies up, beyond our boundaries, at the edges of things, tentative and true with our well-intentioned offerings. All exports are crowbars, after all, lifting heavy lids.

We reconvened with our hosts across the street after the theatre went dark and were joined by a growing entourage; novitiates, escapees, the scholarly mixing with the unschooled, the collapsed and swollen, the shrinking and charging, the lost and found. The flow in the room was palpable as we moved between chairs, the smoking room and plates of food. Conversation hummed, shifted, escalated, blew up, settled, regained strength, falling and rising and falling again. Then, the party drifted downtown to La Bodega where young jazz lads with downy facial hair poured themselves out, shy but strong, into the long, dark room lit up with window hung neon and tabled candlelight. Dance floors were made where we stood and our hoarse voices strained over bar bedlam; bottles broke in trash bins, heads tipped towards an introduction or a repeat sentence, drink reorders shouted over sticky bar rails, the slosh of ice bins being re-filled. I fell in love that night with everything. The smells, the taste of whiskey, another cigarette, laughter, fresh faces leaning in, young poets, artists and musicians, words upending words tumbling into the beleaguered, lush night writing us and wringing us out—and all the while, the Mississippi silently moved alongside us, mirroring our movements and releasing its damp, lonely emissaries into our midst.

This morning I sat by the Cannon River in the tall dry grass. I watched the water bubble around dark rocks and push up against downed trees while the dogs ran their repetitive missions on the shoreline. The river is low for this time of year—the weather has been unseasonably warm with little rainfall. There is no fear of drowning for the meantime.

Mental Contagion
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