The Hudson River gets no respect. No one thinks America and thinks of the Hudson; most people think of the mighty Mississippi or the cutthroat Colorado, and for good reason: The Mississippi is America’s aorta, dividing the nation east and west, and the Colorado carved out a canyon so grand they can see it from the International Space Station. But the Hudson — nobody thinks of the Hudson unless they’re from New York. I’m not from New York (I’m from Illinois actually, so naturally I think of the Mississippi when I think of America), but I think of the Hudson too.
After the Potomac and the Charles, the Hudson is America’s first river (by ‘America’ I mean the United States, and by ‘first’ I mean in the history of white colonization of what would become the United States). This country and that river go way back; the Hudson has seen it all. The river was there when the Lenape Indians sold the island of Manhattan to Dutch colonists for 24 bucks (money, not deer); when an infamous turncoat plotted to hand West Point over to the Redcoats; when thousands of Irish immigrants brought the wealth of the Great Lakes floating down to the Big Apple; when Cooper and Irving told stories about Mohicans and headless Hessian horsemen; and when a 24-year-old painter named Thomas Cole climbed the Catskills and began what would later be called the Hudson River School, the first truly American art movement. The Hudson helped New York City become the financial capital of the United States, and then the world. If ‘today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself,’ as Lennon said, then the Hudson is the Tiber; it’s what the Thames is to the English, or what the Seine is to the French — it is our capital river.
Hudson, the latest book of poetry by my friend Xánath Caraza, is the literal version of a sealed jar preserving the power and beauty of the Hudson’s sacred waters. To twist open the jar and read through these verses is to be transported, upriver or down, this bank or the other. There are the sights and sounds of the great city, of course — ‘la ciudad de luces neón,/ de parques de plástico y silicón‘ — but mostly there’s the river, dark and moody, centuries of life and mysteries and destiny flowing deep beneath its rippling surface like truth and beauty do throughout Caraza’s poetry.
Reading Hudson, I feel as though I’m standing on the river’s edge, gazing into the churning unknown, cool and grey-blue, with dark green trees hugging the water and a grey haze enveloping all. I stare at the river, into it, catching glimpses of faces and voices half-remembered, memories not my own but still somehow springing from within me. Thinking and feeling so much but not knowing exactly what, I hear a gentle yet firm voice beside me, a voice like the heavy branches of a willow tree groaning in a gust of evening wind. The voice belongs to the poetess herself, her pupils fixed on the water, though vaguely. She says something — like ‘Piensa con las manos,/ dice la voz del agua./ Escribe la historia/ que se disuelve,’ or ‘Se mueven las sílabas/ con el agua del Hudson./ Otras mueren en/ las calles pavimentadas‘ — and in that moment the river’s ancient language makes sense to me; I am lifted to a new level of knowing, finally understanding something which has been coursing through my life all along. But then the moment dissolves with the flow of the river, leaving me overawed yet again.
My eyes drift across each printed line, lingering on the words highlighted in bold script which float by like flotsam, waterfowl, boats, some of them even like great big barges puffing smoke. Some of the accented lyrics seem to burst up from the page like striped bass flashing in the glow of Caraza’s reverie. The words in italics appear as eddies, tiny swirls of meaning dancing in the unceasing surge of verse upon verse.
Water, bodies of water specifically — their perpetual motion, their power and grace, their timeless use as a metaphor for time — is a major theme with Caraza; so too is the wind for that matter. And why shouldn’t they be? Any poet that doesn’t appreciate the magic carried by rivers and breezes isn’t worth her weight in ink. A river, like the wind, is coming from somewhere and going somewhere else — aren’t we all? Yet, a river doesn’t stop for anyone or anything; it just moves along minding its own business, sticking to its purpose. A river carries a lot with it but never reveals much; a river keeps deep secrets which no one will ever know. Stand at the edge of a river late at night, when no one or no thing is around, and you get the sure sense you do not stand there alone. The river knows you’re there but doesn’t care, just as it didn’t care about all the other men and women and kids who have stood there staring at it; just as it’ll never care about all the people who will stop and stare and be reminded of how the world overflows with poetry.
And so I say again: Our humble Hudson gets no respect. But the latest collection of ‘dark melodies’ by Xánath Caraza goes a long way toward giving the river, all rivers, their due.
By Xánath Caraza
(Translated by Sandra Kingery)
Editorial Nazarí: 121 pages
Featured image: Xánath Caraza