In 10 Mississippi Steve Healey sets out to build a city on the Mississippi (“Lifeboat, Wingspan”) from the detritus of contemporary culture. And there’s plenty of detritus drifting through this river world; birds, dead bodies, hamburger/meat (in several forms), text sampling, and the color red (also in several forms, including ketchup) are recurring motifs throughout the book.
Many poems relate eating and capitalism to the violence in our world. This is especially true in “Ketchup over the Park,” in which the troops become hamburger meat and we become “the eaters of grilled beef patties.” I get the sense that a passively violent backyard or community cookout is an appropriate backdrop in other poems as well (including “Animals among Us,” “Green Afternoon,” and “Slow Emergency”).
But my favorite poems work with repetition and variation in several different forms. Sometimes the repetition of a phrase or structure propels the reader forward at an alarming pace (see the twisting clauses of “Against Violence”—a 39-line sentence with several bends in its river). At other times a repeated image seeks to bring a stillness (the skipping record needle in “While I Held My Breath Underwater”). These poems let images and sounds accumulate. The river gathers this detritus and builds a world around itself.
Repetition and variation is most important in the title poem, the book’s ten-section centerpiece. The base image of “10 Mississippi” is a dead body being pulled from the river. But the image returns; it comes back changed, bloated or leaking. The body becomes many bodies, but we never get a fix on exactly who they are (or were) before they fell into the river. The faces of the bodies shift—notice the pronouns in the tenth section: “…he was about to enter / the water but was then pushed / into the water by the other man, / her body was pulled from the water.”
In part seven of the poem, Healey ties this image of a body pulled from the river to a childhood game of hide-and-seek. But we know that seeking the bodies that hide in the river is not fun. That the game has become a harsh reality. By the eighth section the river is eating bodies, and by the tenth a coroner reports that “the river is a monster.” Which relates back to the “violence of eating” in other poems. We built a world, but that world became a voracious monster. Worse, each body in the monster’s mouth has lost its “self,” and is faceless. But even though we have created and inhabit this violent world, Healey sees a possible redemption in children and words.
Again, Healey uses repeated images and phrases. This time the returning phrases remind us of how children free associate and play; how they notice something new in their world, then keep noticing it (and pointing it out to any animate or inanimate being in proximity). They must sense the power that words have. This power of words is an important idea in “The Invention of the Alphabet, or The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog.” Healey’s child narrator tells us: “Yesterday Mrs. Berger taught us a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. She said, don’t repeat this sentence or else something awful may happen.”
And something awful has happened in the poem already: the narrator’s school bus has hit and killed a fox.
We never read that the narrator used that dangerous sentence (or what it is). However, we know he likes to tinker with words and images (his teacher’s name “is a food that [he] likes to eat with ketchup. Her lips have a lot of red on them.”). We imagine the temptation to play with that dangerous sentence must have been immense for such a child. Finally he admits, “I know it’s my fault that the fox is dead.” Another game has become reality.
However, the experience does not destroy the narrator—it transforms him (and also, I would argue, the violence done to the fox). In the last line, he becomes the quick brown fox of the poem’s title: “On the sidewalk there’s a lazy dog curled up like baby Jesus. I jump over him.”
This is a narrator who wants to put words into the world because he knows words make ideas real. He even tells us, “The fox and the dog are more real than us because they know every word.”
This narrator believes that his words can bring a good world into existence; that they can transform reality. With narrators like this, Healey does more than build his city on the Mississippi. He encourages us to build our own.
A.T. Grant is an MFA student at the University of Minnesota. He makes poems and songs. His band is called New South Bear. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Scrambler and Forklift, OH. He lives in Minneapolis.