ON THE GREAT RIVER
All day, the river quietening, we glide into the deeper,
further reaches, re-entering the mountains, the channel
narrowing, its volume marked only by a flexion
thickening from time to time in its swift surface calm.
Watched by the stones, and by the stillness of the stone;
seen by the goliath heron, rising, clattering, from its river island;
watched only by a figure on the farther bank, over in Namibia,
face eyeless under its hat, the light, who waits for us to go –
the river narrows to its defile, the mountains go far off:
then, one by one, the boats file out into the desert.
And hour by hour, a heat takes hold. Under a sun
that is both hammer, anvil, the stones out on
the desert floor detach themselves from the sand-plains
and float towards us through the waves of heat.
We feel a light that pits and dints the surface
of the river with a darkness – and, looking up, a blackness
in the light itself, behind the light, our darkening
by the moment, far off and far beneath it.
And, all the while, boats drifting further apart,
the calls no longer carom off the canyon walls,
coming back at us. One by one, we too have fallen silent.
Now we see whole plains that tilt for days, emptying
towards more mountains in the south – and feel it
quicken: that far subduction in us, these mountains
beneath mountains, their crustal roots of cooked
and twisted rock reaching far beneath those levels
where it has ponded, cooled, even into those pockets,
still liquid stone, sweated out of the planets core.
And more and more, this far on, we don’t know
if it’s some dream of the beginning that we are
entering: a time of rock still molten, rising in tall plumes
through the mantle of the earth, in volcanoes
that vent sulphur, iron, the fumaroles still burning.
We no longer know, each nightfall later, if it’s
that other dream our boats are ferrying us towards –
when this river, too, will be as clinkered as the plains,
when these mountains, stone broken by frost, will darken
charred and cold as the mountains of Tibet, deader
than Mars. We know only a stone against whose rind
of stone we feel the softness of our internal organs,
the soft chalk, accident of our bones. We feel only
the fabric of a sand, like rust, corroded through
by dryness – and something rising, in sand and blood,
which would cry out and cannot, choked off in the heat, in us,
who bend once more to our paddles, bending to our shadows
Then, one final night, boats beached, we reach
a peak and climb into the twilight gale that sweeps
the river eastwards each late afternoon. The water soon
far below, its thread of life drawn finer still, run dry
in sand and thorn not five feet from its banks,
the horizon-line now toneless with cold dust,
we wait amidst the summit stone, amidst a wind
which blows to waste itself beyond the oxbow
and its floodplain in the waste places of the Namib.
There was a moment before night was ushered in
and Scorpio’s sting appeared, curling in the upper sky,
when – all this before us – the shadow of it
passed. We saw the tree that, solo, in the bed
of a dry wadi, immobilises, even in this wind,
the space for miles around in its dead stillness.
We looked towards the cindered cones of old
volcanoes on the far side of the river, a stone
that incubates its stillness one million years or ten –
and for a moment saw (I think you saw it too)
just how we were here: two figures in deep
empty space, each far-sunken in themselves,
knowing something harden, go separate in themselves –
knowing, as not before, the dust that shadows
their own blood even as it flows, the stone that,
older than any bone long mineralised in them
as thigh-bone, thorax, spine, fixes them in place
while the world flows away, and they must watch it go:
the desert lifting into the dunes like moguls, small and grey
and corrugated by the gale before they drift and fade
into the fadedness of those still further ranges
as the light goes stale; and one figure further off,
moving back into the boulders far below, watched
by another who cannot seem to go, who stares as if
it could be out-stared – the surface of a river greying,
grown strange with the upwellings that slide back
weltering against its flow; and the shadows along the banks
gone dusty, blurring all the more as the sand drives through them.
Poet's Note: The Great River, also known at Grootrivier, takes its name from the Nama/Korana word 'Gariep', meaning a large rather than a small watercourse. It is more commonly known, of course, as the Orange River.