Columbia River Gorge

One River, A Thousand Voices by Claudia Castro Luna

Review by Tod Marshall

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Accordion-Folded Broadside | Chin Music Press | 2020

 
One River, A Thousand Voices, by Claudia Castro LunaIn One River, A Thousand Voices, Claudia Castro Luna, fresh from her two-year travels as Washington State Poet Laureate, offers us a journey through Columbia River country that is both an exploration of that life-giving watershed and a mythic journey through the flora and fauna, geologies and histories, the various literal and figurative rivers that emotionally and physically have compelled, compel, and will compel the lives of so many creatures and, of course, our frail, ephemeral lives.

Enough, though, with sentences that sprawl like a watershed. In this one long poem, One River, A Thousand Voices unfolds like a river; literally and figuratively, Castro explores landscape and history. The book catalogs creatures and peoples, geologies and geographies. The poem’s voice—its many voices—are reverential and reflective, passionate and patient. Further, even the format of the book, a vertical unfolding that is like an accordion, enacts the sprawling flow of her subject matter. 

One River, A Thousand Voices, by Claudia Castro LunaLyrical energies drive One River. Among the book’s many predecessors are Whitman and Lorca, Claribel Alegria and Javier Heraud, Gary Snyder and Gregory Orr. One River is ambitious; it attempts and succeeds to bring together myriad creatures, the subsequent human dwellers, and the voices from history—the profoundly powerful speaking that this wellspring creates. 

Like a chanted prayer, the poem opens with a fevered conditional:

When world was clamshell
and heaven and earth
mirrored each other
the blue of one
hue to the other,
when mountains spit
fire and lava
and their igneous entrails
scorched earth and suffocated heaves 
            back when time teetered
            on eternal night
            and light’s brink
            augured the unbounded
            burgeoning imagination
            of life to come…

The poem continues with this litany, recounting pre-ponderosa pine, pre-“sawed mountain” and “crushed boulders,” the majestic and ancient denizens of the Northwest. From the salmon’s desperate drive to “risk gill and gut” to return the “sweet streams” that are a river’s tributary lifeblood to the “rumble and lightning / grace and muscular rigging” of the river’s current. 

The poem continues with this chant of pre-history, pre-human presence, depicting a river’s waters that flow through geography and time. Luna attempts to render both the pre-imaginative movement of the waters and the shaping and vision that the first people would bring:

… before human tongues called a place
of roaring, sizzling falls Shonitku
and our majestic self, names of reverence
even before brave men perched
on wooden planks ensnared leaping salmon
on the improbable journey
to spawning sites

Before prayers of praise and gratitude
before songs of sorrow and joy
before words spoken and unspoken

This exploration, this foray into human history and geological strata, has been a pursuit for Luna throughout her career. In a 2018 interview with Priscilla Celina Suarez in The Latino Book Review, Luna offered this insight into her imaginative projects:

Finally, I hope as WA Poet Laureate to engage the notion of arrival. Our state is a young state; we have only 130 years of statehood history! There are trees in our territory older than that. Everyone here, except for native peoples, has a story of arrival, stories of grit and determination, of hopes and dreams. I want to surface those stories to evidence how much we have in common: those of us who arrived a year ago and those who may have been born in this state, but who can point to a relative or relatives who arrived here not so long ago, from a faraway place, seeking a better life.

Her exploration of arrival, of the ancient nature of the trees and the stones, predates the determination “of grit and determination, of hopes and dreams” of human presence. Her pilgrimage in One River, A Thousand Voices is to imagine the most ancient of ancient histories, the lives of the creatures along the shores of the river, the struggles of native peoples, and then the impact of those who arrived about the same time as the sprouting of ancient trees of which she speaks. 

After this initial chant-like movement, the poem continues to recount the damming of the river—“concrete” that “penned and silenced / so that your icy pulse regenerated / to tepid lakes.”  She writes of the last salmon runs, of the betrayals of treaties, of the loss of “Salishan, Sahaptin and Chinookan languages,” but the poem returns again and again from these elegiac tones to notes of praise, to the “thousand and one” names of the river, each a speaking of and to the large and small, scaly and winged, furred and feathered creatures. This balance in the latter part of the poem is both a recognition of relentless loss and the enduring legacies of those wild and human that have relied upon, sung to, flown above, and swum through the resplendent waters.

That Luna achieves this balance speaks to the poem’s success: she moves between litany and lamentation with a memorable grace; further, the poem powerfully connects this ancient speaking of flora and fauna to the human intuitions of “Sage women and wise men / who sense these nonhuman nomenclatures / at the margin of their knowing / but never possess them.” Luna’s paean—a beautiful and haunting work—ends with a final optimistic note of the river’s rejuvenation, of its return from ocean through cloud to snow to a resurgent flowing propelled by the power of its past yet with an “unrelenting” and ancient beauty and strength “for the future.” 

 

 

Tod MarshallTod Marshall is the author of three books of poetry: Dare Say, The Tangled Line, and Bugle. He lives in Spokane, Washington, and he teaches at Gonzaga University.

Read Tod Marshall’s Letter to America poem in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Bob Pool, courtesy Shutterstock.

 

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.