04 August 2011

Ancient Dusky Rivers

My three favorite poets are John Donne (to include even his Jackish side), Pablo Neruda, and Langston Hughes. They have quite different styles, and I have certain lines that I associate with each, which somewhat encapsulate what I like about the poems of each. But today it’s Langston Hughes.

My favorite parts from my favorite poems of his are:

   A night-veiled girl
   Whirls softly into a
   Circle of light
   Whirls softly…slowly,
   Like a wisp of smoke around the fire—
   And the tom-toms beat,
   And the tom-toms beat,
   And the low beating of the tom-toms
   Stirs your blood”

(Just say it out loud, you'll see why I love it)

And then the famous:

“I’ve known rivers:
 Ancient dusky rivers
 My soul has grown deep like the rivers”

And it is the later poem that concerns us here today. I am a river girl. Always have been. Used to make up songs about “bein’ born by the river in the dead of summer.” The river by which I was born is not a particularly famous or beautiful one, but it cuts through the city I grew up in and I love its bridges and its trees and the trails and streets and rail-road tracks that run on either side of it.

And surprisingly enough, for a young blood like myself from a relatively nondescript river, I too have known ancient dusky rivers. Two of the rivers mentioned in Hughes’ poem, to be precise. The Nile and the Euphrates. (I have seen the Mississippi too, but I don’t think I can claim the same level of acquaintance there).

When I first met those two most famous of rivers, I was as giddy as a school-girl, I can tell you. Luckily I was able to talk to each in its native tongue and we got on well. I think they understood that I was a river type.

Sadly I’m not much of a picture taker, and I don’t know what happened to the pictures I think I may have taken of the Euphrates. Suffice it to say, the circumstances of my meeting the Euphrates were unusual and all I can put here is a photograph of Western Iraq at a distance from the river

And what happens when you’re near the river

The latter I took from the roof, and yes those are sunflowers. This is why I love rivers. This is why rivers aren’t just pretty and fun to swim in. This is why they are metaphors for life and flourishing in the Bible and almost everywhere else.

Now don’t misunderstand. I love (LOVE) the desert. All kinds of deserts. But there is a reason that Isaiah (43:19) talks about “a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Civilizations and great cities blossom beside rivers.

When I think of these rivers I think of what Iraqi poet, Shawqi ‘Abd Al-Amir, said in his book (يوم في بغداد). He’s actually speaking of the Tigris here, but the Tigris and the Euphrates belong to each other, so roll with it:

“You had to look for the river within a river in order to recognize it, and in some parts you could cross it on foot, being afterwards forced to disbelieve yourself that this ditch beneath your feet is, in fact, the Tigris...that river which divided history into two halves and upon whose banks stood an Empire, embracing the rising and the setting of the sun underneath its two edges.”

(translation mine and, therefore, not perfect. It did not go easily into English. It put up a fight to stay in Arabic. And yes, it is also a sad quote. The Nile has also shrunk a great deal.)

Now when I crossed the Nile for the first time, I was in deep awe of how long this river has supported civilization. You strange, fascinating, grand, much-storied, up-going river!

What once supported this:

Now supports this:

I believe my sister took both of these and to give her credit, and since I don’t think she’d mind being posted as I would:

I suppose I’ve elaborated sufficiently but just one more little thing. Another river which is great and ancient and significant: The Jordan. I don’t have a picture of it, but I have one (again not taken by me, but by my mom. I am not the one who takes pictures in this family) of its tributaries: The Dan, taken at the lovely Kibbutz Dafna:

Now you would think that these many legendary rivers would ruin my own river for me. They don't. It just makes me glad I was born by one. And having moved half-way across the country, I live by one still. Can hardly help it. That’s where cities spring up.

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells”
(Psalm 46:4)


  1. I like trying to be the first to comment on your blogs...which works for me because you probably post at night, and I check it first thing during the week in my morning...mere hours after you post, while others sleep. Yay! for being 7 hours ahead of you in the world.

    I giggled when I saw my picture, I was just wondering if I had taken those pictures, and then you clarified that for me. I appreciated the shout out and the photo. I know you know this, but...seriously that was an amazing trip together.

    I like how you represented the river we grew up by. I too love it, especially the things you mentioned, it made me a bit home sick. It is sad to think of those ancient might rivers dwindling over time due to arguments over water rights and dams. To think the Nile used to reach to the pyramids.
    By the way, when I first read the title I had to re-read to not see 'ancient dusty rivers', which in the case of our river at home, I think is accurate for this summer.

    Anyway, I love your posts, and appreciated being a part of it.

  2. I had a particular sense that you might enjoy this post! And how could I not give you credit. Those pictures are amazing. I was in such a rivers mood.

  3. And I suspected you wouldn't mind being featured