A Review of Heather Dobbins’s “River Mouth”

by Elijah Burrell

In the “Notes” section near the back of River Mouth (Kelsay Books, 2017), Heather Dobbins’s newest book of poems, she admits she is “no historian.” She goes on to say, “[I] surely got some things wrong for the music of poetry.” The poems in River Mouth move with astonishing speed from one singular voice to the next. These are the voices of those who populated the Mississippi Delta from 1880–1930, whose history and river culture have all but vanished. These poems speak from the minds and mouths of Dobbins’s deckhands, river pilots, shanty preachers, and sharecroppers. The poems communicate desire, loss and hurt, and preternatural music in a way that never feels less than caring and genuine. These are lives off-the-record, long lost but striking.

Dobbins calls forth authentic diction from the period and the people. It feels unfeigned and unforced. In some cases, readers might have to read a line several times just to get at what the speaker is saying, but that is only because it feels so natural. It is as if Dobbins had piloted those boats, walked those sandbars, and worked the levee camps herself. The poems are terse and minimal, yet bursting with interesting language and an abundance of bygone phrases and idioms. In “River Mouth Blues,” the showboat piano man says:

 

When a song chooses me, my eyes get wet.

When I have one to play for, I can remember enough

to feel. Not hear the crowd, ruining pitch and harmony,

sidestepping into my shoulder. One who can shut up

his world for an evening, nevermind the talk

all around us. The one doesn’t let my glass get empty.

 

Dobbins’s speakers are irresistibly strange. Many of them are named in the titles of River Mouth’s five sections. These speakers—and the various characters in each section—assume the same traits as the river governing their lives. A river’s mouth is found where one river flows into another body of water. Such mouths are full of debris and sediment because of the constant turmoil and movement of the water. Like the water, River Mouth’s speakers must navigate their own inner detritus. In the fourth section, “The Alligator God and the River Ghosts,” Dobbins’s lines swing in all directions, surging left to right on the page, the spirits in the poems moving over the face of the waters. These forms provide implicit instructions on how we might read and understand the poems they construct. In “River Ghost Queens,” a poem that winds between the aforementioned swinging lines, couplets, and myriad other “regular” patterns, Dobbins writes:

 

Every body pours from a gutter,

goes somewhere she’s needed more—

a redirected mouth. I didn’t tell on him.

Only way to take river is in gulps.

 

At one point “In Three Days Time,” the sharecropper’s daughter tells the reader, “All life in the water trusts its home. / The river’s only promise is it will disobey.” The speakers in River Mouthunderstand this difficult truth, and they wander through these poems disillusioned and dazed. In “Don’t Tell Me,” the deckhand explains the river’s journey:

 

When you ask me how long she goes, I’ll teach

you again: The Great River opens in Minnesota,

smaller than my crew cabin. Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois,

Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The river is taken in by Arkansas, Mississippi,

until Louisiana, like fingers into gulf.

 

In “Six-day Eyes,” a poem of flowing anguish and misery, the sharecropper’s daughter teaches us about what she’s seen and made of loss:

 

Beauty has never, not once stayed.

If I have learned anything in fifteen years,

it’s that every mouth is shifting,

every one of you: another Mississippi, unsatisfied.

 

The body—most notably the mouth—is a theme in these poems. In this particular poem, a baby’s mouth drinks in its mother’s milk and cries as the mother who provided it walks away:

 

… Carried down, I dump your seven pounds

and three ounces, turn my back

to what cries out for a mother, count my steps

away from you.

 

In River Mouth, the Mississippi is call-and-response religion. It is provider and killer. The Mississippi is sex. Dobbins’s voices marry the spiritual with the erotic in surprising ways. In “Shantyfolk Dance Floor,” the shanty preacher’s daughter says, “A true river man knows / how to lean, to move with / and against.” Then, the following sestet communicates the glide of something deep and powerful—the sound of a “wet saxophone”—a step to the right and back to the left:”

 

I closed his eyes

with my lips.

Time to call.

Time to respond.

I was current

he could hold.

 

Heather Dobbins reanimates not only these many voices but the life of the old river too. In River Mouth, spirits from this long-ago place are rebirthed to bring forth their testimonies and give an account of their lives to the modern world. Dobbins wrote this book because she worried we are losing history. That is lucky for all of us, because she has found it.¨