This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
When I finally graduated from sixth grade and no longer had teachers making me memorize poetry for disrupting the line waiting for the bathroom after recess, I began to read for pleasure, and so discovered the magic way words fit together to make sentences, poems, paragraphs, and whole stories. I read, and read, and read.
And that is how, late in life, I drifted into the poetry of John Knoepfle who has claimed the wide Mississippi Valley as his country. From his first book, Rivers into Island, to his last, Poems from the Sangamon, has explored the strange connection between poems and Mississippi River islands.
Both are even born in the same way. When Knoepfle writes about the "silt, which slow rivers encourage into islands," he is also thinking of the way the rivers of our imagination encourage words to come together, one by one, and either wash away or grow to become poems and novels. Think of the islands your own mind has built and washed away.
Both poems and islands are fragile, at the mercy of shifting currents or the need to dredge a new channel. Most poems are temporary, "a momentary stay against confusion," as Robert Frost says. Only one out of a hundred takes root and stands firm against the current and other enemies, and ends up, eventually in a map or a book.
And finally, good poems, like islands, forge a mystical bond between this earth and the spiritual. What island or poem, however small, does not remind us of Eden, inviting us to explore, while at the same time assaulting our senses with the dank animal smell of earth, water, and vegetation? For John Knoepfle, the Mississippi is a river of turbid, muddy water, tow boats at work, the banks stitched by iron bridges; yet it is the mythic Old Man who took Huck and Jim on their voyage of discovery.
Read a book by John Knoepfle, and you will understand how islands and poems are alike, and how alike both are to those fragile, temporary islands in the river of time we call ourselves. For we are each truly I-lands.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.