Book Review: The Music Of Her Rivers

Renny Golden’s The Music Of Her Rivers

Wendy Bustamante
3 min read
The Music of Her Rivers
(courtesy of the artist)
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In his Poetics, Aristotle says that a key difference between history and poetry is that history deals with particulars whereas poetry deals with universals. I wonder what Aristotle might have thought about Renny Golden, whose poems describe particular moments in history. The Music of Her Rivers is a two-part book of poetry about the history of two rivers: the Rio Grande and the Chicago River.

The history told about the Rio Grande runs from the 16th century through the 19th century. The history told about the Chicago River picks things up in the 20th century and runs through to just a few years ago (2017). Both histories, as you can imagine, tell dark tales about death and dying wherein, “Entrails and guts are thrown into the river until/ the offal brews, bubbles and bubbles./ Chicago River takes gaseous sewage/ like a helpless beast smelling its own death.” The narration is personal and at times even takes its reader into the river where, “Around us, like a low boiling stew, hundreds/ of bubbles. We ride quiet, held by waters/ that mark history with methane.” These poems tell the stories of particular people and their experiences, but each story is clearly inspired by a moment in that history.

Golden documents these moments in history and marks them by year and location. She gives her readers enough information to identify each historical moment with indications such as, “The Irish are fierce artillerists under a Mexican colonel and their own Captain John O’Reilly even as General Winifred Scott advances from Vera Cruz and Zach Taylor’s dragoons cross the Rio Grande.” The content of her poems are varied. Her narrators transform in gender and age as her poems span across decades to tell a myriad of historically inspired biographical moments. To play with the title, each poem is like a different song with a different melody sung by a different voice; each of which appears to be crafted to match the feelings and tastes of a certain era. The one titled “Boy Heroes of Mexico” tells a story credited to José Luis for teaching the narrator the story of, “the Mexican/ defeat at Chapultepec and Los Niños Héroes.” José Luis tells the story as if he “is there in 1847,/ hears cannon blast pound the Citadel,/ his hands speaking when English words are dead to him./ Mexicans have no more ammunition, his hand makes a gun—no bam! bam!/ Trapped, outnumbered—he backs into a corner.” The poem has a child tell a tale about children, or rather about “six teenage cadets killed defending the castle of Chapultepec.” Each poem has a narrator, or two or three. Each narrator has a story to tell.

What makes these particular stories based on particular moments in history universal is the poetic way in which they are told. The story always comes back to the rivers that flowed at every point. And though it has been said you cannot step twice into the same river, the rivers connect the poems in this book so as to suggest that location links historical events, which, in turn, link us to the historical past of our present place. If you’re reading this near to the Rio Grande, perhaps you will feel connected to what has happened right where you now stand. Such a feeling of universal correlation is what I believe Aristotle meant, after all.
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