Elizabeth Gauffreau’s Reviews > The Salty River Bleeds
It was amazing!
Stephen Page’s poetry collection The Salty River Bleeds continues the story of eco-rancher Jonathan and his wife Teresa begun in A Ranch on the Salty River. In the opening poem, “Jonathan Goes to Search for It at Sunset,” he is still searching for The Myth, but “Once again he is left standing / some hundreds of meters from Wood / because he finds his pants are much too thin / to cross the lots with thistle.” This poem sets the warp and weft of Jonathan’s search for meaning in middle age as the collection unfolds.
These poems are finely-crafted and accessible, with a compelling voice. Page employs a range of poetic forms, including the epistolary ”Dear Nephew” and “Dear Father,” the prose poem “On a Breath-Mist Morning,” and the confessional “Your Violet Hair Ribbon.” I liked how the use of different forms left me a little off-balance as a reader, not knowing quite what to expect–which echoes Jonathan’s life on the ranch.
The conflict Jonathan struggles with is between obligation and personal fulfillment: the compromises we have to make to earn a living and meet family obligations–and the emotional and spiritual cost these compromises can sometimes bring. In Jonathan’s case, the cost is the necessity to harden himself to carry on his constant battle with dishonest and malingering ranch employees. As he notes in “Tattler, Too”:
My armor is intact.
I had reason it keep it on.
. . . .
I have learned to lie and I don’t like it.
I didn’t realize until my second reading that Obligation is actually personified in the introduction to the collection, “Proem”:
His hair is black, as are his eyes, beard, suit, and tie.
He holds a folded newspaper under his arm.
He smiles at the Beauty of Ranch.
I read A Ranch on the Salty River, immediately followed by The Salty River Bleeds. I would encourage other readers to do the same. The first book introduces us to Jonathan and provides glimpses into his thoughts and desires as he works the land in a foreign country to make a living. The Salty River Bleeds gives us his dark night of the soul. Will Jonathan emerge from his dark night to live in Wood, where he belongs? The penultimate poem of the collection, “The Salty River,” provides his vision of “the End”:
The Cultivators were nowhere to be seen,
their noxious machinery fumes and pesticides
not clouding the air or poisoning the Earth.
The Gauchos were all in their homes
With their families, eating, or drinking mate.
However, the closing poem of the collection, “Ennui: Old Man,” suggests not:
I never see him stopped.,
sitting down, or drinking coffee
in a truck stop.
He is always walking,
For me, the best poetry is experienced viscerally first. It then resonates to the heart and continues resonating until it reaches the head. This is just how I experienced The Salty River Bleeds. Jonathan stayed with me for days after I finished reading the book. Kudos to the poet!