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Michigan Bookmark: Ecological awareness, political anger surface in “Lying in the River’s Dark Bed”

Wayne State University Press, 2016


Michael Delp’s newest collection of poems, "Lying in the River’s Dark Bed", reads like a surreal, post-apocalyptic novel-in-verse.  The characters who narrate the collection, the Dead Man and the Mad Angler, serve Delp’s themes of ecological awareness, spiritual darkness, and political anger well. 

Delp served for years as Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. He knows Northern Lower Michigan intimately (heck, his official writer bio even boasts of how he “spends most of his time fly fishing on the Boardman River”) and this knowledge infuses his verse with an unvarnished beauty that recognizes the worth in what is imperiled; namely the tributaries and streams that connect to our world’s largest freshwater supply, the Great Lakes Basin.

The layout of this book, with its multiple access points, is fascinating.  The reader can begin with “The Dead Man” section, “The Mad Angler” section, or begin with the middle section titled “Confluence.”  The book’s recursive form is meant to mimic that transitional delta space where rivers pour into larger bodies.  This formal invention makes Delp’s collection completely unique, and kudos to the editors at Wayne State University Press for allowing him such an unconventional layout.

“The Dead Man” section of the book is full of bleak resignation in the form of gorgeous, tortured images.  It opens with:

“He watches the darkness walk out of the river and slide under his skin. In his veins, he mistakes it for wine” (2).

Right out the gate, the Deadman character is the personification of death’s accompanying darkness, its transformation of the self into mere organic material.

Where the Deadman’s ensoulment happens via violent self-abnegation, Delp’s Mad Angler is characterized by a more Wordsworthian communion with the natural world: 

“I praise the lust for emergences, the urge to quit the job, convert the pension funds to river frontage… I embrace the chant of waterfalls, the litany of holy rivers: Biterroot, Rock Creek, Yellowstone” (64).

While the Deadman is resigned to ecological violence and even seems comfortable wandering that darkness, the Mad Angler is much more human in his propensity for lament and ecological protest.  Take these lines from the poem, “The Mad Angler Speaks Truth To Politicians”:

“Over 65 years ago, as soon as I could walk, I abandoned myself to water. I prowled lakes and creeks, rivers and swamps. Now, I sit on the edge of the woods where river meets sky and I tell you this: As surely as water is blood, as surely as my blood is water, what you have done over decades of greed has turned your hearts into pus pumps. I would trade most of you for a single river” (62).

Delp’s collection serves as a reminder that the commons are still worth fighting for, that their exploitation at the hands of big business demands our collective anger.  Sadly, it is a plea that has not grown tired. 

John Freeman publishes poetry under the name "Cal Freeman." He is the author of the book, Brother of Leaving and the chapbook Heard Among the Windbreak

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

*This story was originally broadcast on Feb. 7, 2017.

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