by Heather Dobbins
We asked poet Heather Dobbins to share some thoughts on the creative process that went into “River Mouth,” a poem we’re concurrently featuring at The Lascaux Review.
Poems, as opposed to historical or academic literature, have the ability to reach diverse audiences, and better share the communal loves, struggles, and losses of history—those feelings being what make history less distant. Two guiding quotations have remained my touchstones in this theory. One is from Muriel Rukeyser’s The Fear of Poetry: “Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.” The other is from Mark Doty’s lecture “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now”: “Poetry’s work is to make people real to us through the agency of the voice. ‘Poetry is the human voice,’ I tell them, ‘and we are of interest to one another. Are we not?’”
While defining “elegy” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Philip Sacks wrote that the Greeks believed us unable to inherit without mourning. Perhaps the most ancient of realization for poets is this: Time and time again, after the lasting loss of death, the talk between poets remains the only significant solace. The biggest lesson I have learned as a poet is that poets make offerings of tribute and reward with their own poems. I love how steeped we are in tradition, so much so that our metaphors are shared like mourning is shared.
I was doing the finishing touches on my first book, In the Low Houses, in which I was primarily interested in the slipping dialectics between dead/living, student/teacher, silence/ars poetica, safety/loss, human body/body of work, and how time and timing dictate my own personal relationships. Focused on and wrapping up my last semester at Bennington’s Graduate Writing Seminars, I had no idea what my next project was, and wasn’t rushing to find it. I was simultaneously teaching full-time and working on my MFA; the prospect of a break was welcome.
But then the Mississippi River had its way with me (and continues to do so). I began River Mouth when Memphis flooded in 2011. Some friends were rushing to protect their school from the Mississippi with sandbags, and I kept wondering why we hadn’t advanced to some other protective mechanism.
I turned to our newspaper, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, to do some research on that very question. I was born in Memphis, and should have known more about the river than I did. My research revealed, sadly, that I was by no means alone: The history was becoming lost. So, I began to seek out those whose lives were governed by the Lower Mississippi River from 1880-1930, the time of my great grandparents (the ones I know only in story). There were only sentences here and there about individuals, but I felt an urgency to heed their words, the ones that needed to be said between the lines of the research.
There, in the stacks in the main library, were broken families most of us no longer consider. They wanted me to know them, having perspective on the river and life that I lacked. I am no historian, and surely sacrifice some facts in service of the music of poetry. Articles and books provided details of settings, superstitions, job specifics, weather conditions, and fires, but the stories and familial connections are fictional. River Mouth is organized into families: deckhand, sharecropper, female ghosts, shanty preacher, and river pilot. It is a body of narrative persona poems. The first ones I wrote were, of course, elegiac, but then the characters wanted to stir mess up. I combined research with my own family stories (my people were sharecroppers before they were farmers; my brother and I are the first generation not to be raised on a farm in Shelby County) to provide the details and language of river life.
Like most, I had taken my Memphis accent for granted; it so often takes me leaving Tennessee to see how wonderful our state is—our tradition and inherent musicality. I am very grateful for audiences and their support of the voice of these poems. This warm interest and connection has been demonstrated at the readings I’ve given for In the Low Houses and River Mouth in California, New York, Ohio, and Missouri. Initially, I had been worried the dialect and location would prove too specific to our region, too distinctive or exclusionary. I could not have been more wrong.
I’ve now heard so many river stories—none of those rivers are as mighty as the Mississippi—but the power and intrigue of these rivers have overlapped. The themes seem to resonate with everyone because, after all, the river is its own life—one that troubles and aids us. It is like a god we plead to, beg, and thank. Above all, the Mississippi is beyond our control. It takes care of us but also takes who we care for away from us.