This poem has its origins long ago in a jaunt on the Mississippi river on board the paddle-steamer SS Natchez.
As water-light dances through cabin blinds
in scintillant counterpoint to her chattering bow,
a brooding threnody of whistles fills up the big boat's horizon-lines;
the mate checks the bearing of her painted prow.
Well-worn warrior of river life, paddles slapping unruly wind-waves,
the big steamer eyes the rising south-bound stretch. The master craves
indulgence, as they round the final elbow of the Bend;
he'd had to sound her raucous navigation horn.
A poker game pauses, rolls its watchful eyes in scorn:
the pilot stares ahead, sighs:
“Another fence to mend … ”.
Casual at the wheel, pilot Clemens considers the options:
stay on course, risk logs, collisions or his captain's curse,
or steer for safety; follow the Louisiana shoreline and his intuitions.
Win or lose, the great brown river cares not a jot:
sets her own free-wheeling course -
on down to Crescent City, in time for Mardi Gras again,
many miles, and Sam's wide smiles, from Hannibal to Mister Twain.
But now the painting changes; silhouettes grows misty in the nightfall,
the riverboat a floating vision, steam hissing, the boiler's straining seams;
the busy, abundant banks turned listless, grey and still: life but a world of dreams
as the caliope sings a haunted tune, falling down its dog days
like a lazy waterfall.