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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

The River

The River

God knows where the wild duck wintered, on what cold lake
While the mist was still in the raupo she heard the guns,
Rose, circled and was gone with the lucky ones
To some remoter peace no man could break;
God knows what months of terror or delight she spent
While our willows were bare and our paddocks under the frost
And vast over Egmont the snow spread its glistening tent,
The stream running cold all the way from mountain to coast;

But spring after spring when the willow put forth again
Its joy in the yellow buds and the green of the leaf,
She came again to the same rough nest on the cliff—
Bound to that place by what most lovely chain!
Held like the tree, held like myself, I know,
In the frozen season and most of all in the sweet
To that one place where the torrent of melted snow
Flashed to her breast and sang on the stones at her feet.

page 43

Bound to that place by what mysterious love!
O shining and winding water, winding in me
And moving towards a song, as in the tree
To bud and leaf the sap's cool currents move,
Never have I lost, no never at any time
However ice-bound, never in any place
However distant, one eddy's splash or chime,
One ripple's flash, one still pool's darker grace.

Passion and disaster, knowledge of love and hate,
Battle of mind and body against the world
Where the rivers of men and traffic roared and swirled,
The lonely rage of the spirit wrestling with fate:
So much went into the making of a man.
But always under the struggle, oh deep below,
The grey stones stood, and one clear river ran
And into the sea of a life brought down the snow.

Into the man's mind, yes, the boy's unfurls
In rings of water and light where the kingfisher dives
To eel and crayfish living their shadowy lives
By rocks that waver as the current glides and swirls;
And the boy's mind comes with a sparkle of sun and the shock
On the swimmer's limbs, till the body is free and flowing
And flesh and mind and spirit like the wavering rock
Are one with the river, going where the water is going.

How often, too, in fantasy or in dream,
Turned country man, or painter of earth and cloud,
My days have sung as they passed, far from the crowd,
Following from sea to snow this restless gleam:
The sombre pools; the light in a sky of willows;
The red and weedy roots where the eddy is dark
And the dead leaf spins and yellows; the stony shallows
Where the silver flames of the rapids flicker and spark;

The shingle bank where the gaunt old crusher stood
And the big trout hid in the run or leaped and splashed
When the stoneflies danced and the sunset colours flashed;
The broken pillars of Chiselhurst's ancient wood,
The haunted hollows where the sunlight came to dance
Like a girl in a ruined temple: by twist and turn,
By reach and run and banks where the mosses glance,
Mile after mile till the snow lay white on the fern.

But deeper than this, deeper than boyish play;
Beyond all this, daydream or dream's delight,
That sombre water burns like stars in my night,
That silver water trembles like wings in my day;
That song of water, like women crying or singing,
Rings in my depths where still is all sound and strife;
That living water, chill from the ice, or bringing
All summer's richness, runs at the roots of my life.

As if I had built my life like some clamorous town
Where crowds jostle and voices shout in confusion
And traffic howls—phantoms at war in illusion!—
While under it all, the joy and the thunder, deep down
The hidden river pursues its own calm course:
Known to be there, some river-mist always known.
But only at the bitterest crisis of rage or remorse
Or the flowering of love—listen! Water on stone.

page 44

At the end of a life illusion falls away.
When the city falls, oh then in that last day, river,
I shall come back to you as a man to his lover,
As the bird comes back when her wild blood sets the day
And the first leaf breaks on the willow. Symbol or truth,
Let the day disclose! But a man's what his spirit knows;
And what I have known for truth, now as in youth,
Is one clear river, coming down cold from the snows.

Douglas Stewart

Sydney, Australia