The River Derwent

The River Derwent

She’d heard the old mission had been restored
recently, put back into place
so to speak, its grubby old age
wiped off like a fogged mirror Jake would say,
and had come to see for herself.

From the front it was no whiter than before.
Unless you are a mission Indian
your approach is coy. Circling
down from a rise some miles away
where the road falls out of the underside of the city,

you see it off to the right, white
in the morning sun. Plaster, of course.
Not a big building, but as noticeable
as an exposed shoulder among brown suits.
Country roads lead around to the face.

There’s no mission square. Just a dusty
parking lot, and an arched gate with a small bell
under which you pass. A low wall,
whitewashed. Some Indian girls, children that is,
were selling guidebooks there as usual.

You pay what you like. On a Thursday morning,
October, no cars but hers,
she gave a dollar. From the front
the central bell tower, the white wings,
seemed unchanged.

A shop had once been there, fitted under the dark lintels.
Later she found it on the plaza in back
they had made new shop space
more discreet. She sat on a bench in mesquite shade
with their water and their books.

They who had made this place,
the mission Indians who were the people
who owned this place. Whose girls
stood out front with coffee cans
in the dust. They once built it for themselves.

In seventeen fifty something. She drank their water,
warm water under the mesquite and didn’t want
to be more precise. In the mercado
a bodega was serving good bean burros in the hot white air
but she didn’t want any of that either.

A light breeze rattled the tree overhead. It was their church
Some foundation’s money rebuilt this
bought the research and the skills.
But their girls. Their burros and Guatemalan rugs
in the mercado.

The work was good. She saw it was good,
knowing nothing.

Why then had she come? Past times
worry us, worried to make a shrine
but that someone was here before

polishing and tidying up, putting to rights
some stuff. As Jake would say stuff.
Inside, the intricate decorations had been cleaned,
repainted in the original heavy red and green
garish to the protestant eye. Scary

reliquaries, gaunt carvings painted blood and gold
with big dark eyes. Masses of wavering candle flames
and stiffened lace concealing dwarves in glass
coffins, pulpits and dark crooked lintels grow
from the narrow walls. You feel you could reach right across.

She wasn’t much for church architecture.
Didn’t know how the parts were — apse, crossing —
was there a rood screen? Or was that Byzantine.
Best to keep such things screened off.
She was a different kind of historian.

She would want to know how they had lived,
what changes the missionaries had made,
why they needed a church
when there was a perfectly good religion already.
She would want to know about dogs

and ball games, and if they also made rugs
for tourists at train stops without a purpose
the way Gray Line tours do. Rugs
using the new aniline dyes, heavy greens and reds
made from coal tar in factories.

Had the friar kept a pariah dog? Territorial jails
were often built by their prisoners too
because there was no prison all ready
to house them. Who’s complaining?
She hadn’t heard any outcry.

The sort of historian she was
who wants to taste the daily life, maybe
she should go for one of those burros
after all. Beans and chiles
were not the friar’s food alone

but had been here all along. She drank the water
which might have gone for Indian beans and squash.
Maybe the friar thought
he was helping to make the adobe for something more
than just another church, already here.

She didn’t understand these things, really.
She was that kind of historian. A woman
from somewhere in England, presumably —
or time was, given her name:
Derwent. Or time was.

She herself was only from the place where she was
last. The academic life
takes you everywhere. An itinerant life
like the early printers setting up wherever
there was no press, needing only a few tools to build one

as the friar and the people did whose church it was.
Built this one out of their own adobe,
probably the dogs leaving their paw prints
in it, cried off too late. Now restored
and all the clay of generations since wiped off.

They hadn’t neglected a cemetery of course
would leave no one unburied. And a school
which was in the opposite wing. Years
she might have worked to become a teacher,
carrying children from one side to the other.

The River Derwent as the English call it,
always putting the particular last,
is about forty-five miles long.
It comes down from the Howden Moors
in the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield

where they make good steel, to Derby and Burton
whence the little packets of salts, that is
minerals, that home brewers use
who have only bad water.
Rivers drain a lot of particular geography,

carrying the anxieties of people who have
no calculus and who cannot explain
how one thing by imperceptible degree becomes another.
To bear a river’s name as she did bears the name
of a particular passage washing her

from birth to death. The flow, or rather that
infusion, that dispersion which James says
is the meaning of religious experience —
one stands at the confluence, waiting,
and somehow there is always more water coming.


This poem started out as an experiment with the Old English verse form, which is based on counting stresses, with a caesura in the middle of the line and equal stresses either side.

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