10 Mississippi by Steve Healey, Coffee House Press, 2010. $16
Reviewed by Melissa J. Lindstrum
The Mississippi is the fourth longest and tenth largest of all the world’s rivers. A quick look at any map of the United States reveals the river’s appetite—the river itself runs through ten states from Minnesota to Louisiana, forming distinct state-line borders among these states. In total, water from 31 states drains into it, creating an enormous drainage basin that ultimately empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
As the premise for Steve Healey’s latest book, 10 Mississippi, the Mississippi River becomes something like a vacuum, and we watch in awe as this life vein in the center of the country sucks up more than just water from us. It’s no secret that people die here.
The first poem in the title series, “10 Mississippi,” uses a repetitive, looping effect to show the river’s vastness and its lack of empathy for those in its vicinity. The poem illustrates news report after news report of victims drowned in these waters:
[A]fter several hours searching the murky waters
of the Mississippi Tuesday night divers recovered
the body of a thirty-nine-year-old woman
local authorities pulled an unidentified body
out of the river’s floodwaters Saturday
a body pulled from the Mississippi River
was identified Monday as that of a the body
found last weekend in the Mississippi River[.]
The poem gives the impression that the drownings happen so often they are almost inevitable, that perhaps anyone in the river’s path is sure to be submerged. Even more poignantly, the drownings happen so frequently that all the instances seem to loop together into one long, torturous murder. In fact, the poem seems to be less about individual victims than about the immensity and constancy of the river and the dangers it poses to us. In “4 Mississippi,” the speaker meets up with an old friend—someone who has witnessed firsthand the destruction of the river and is so haunted by it that he is compelled to tell the speaker his experience, as if he needs some sort of empathy, some commiseration, someone to listen and release him from what he saw. The speaker feels his friend’s anguish transfer to him immediately:
[…]I could see in my friend’s face
that he wanted me to see what he had seen, the creases
around his eyes and mouth quivered a little, as if they
wanted to reach out and take me to the river and show me
the body floating there, and I would look and I would
see the body, and I would wonder if it is the body
of someone I know or have ever known.
The speaker tells us the river is a “dead zone…a growth that cannot support life” (“9 Missisippi”). On its own, the intensity of the river might leave the reader feeling hopeless, despondent. But Healey intersperses the horror of the river with playful memories of childhood hide-and-seek games, a shout-out to Betty Crocker, interesting geological and biological facts about the river, and an expert use of sardonic humor. This contrast makes us want to clutch our bellies in laughter and to simultaneously control the urge to throw up in disgust. Healey accomplishes this contrast best in “8 Mississippi,” where the speaker attempts a dialogue with the river, seemingly begging it to have some mercy by sparing its victims' livers to feed a hungry baby who purportedly loves liver pate:
[…] I don’t know
how you don’t get tired of eating all those people
who fall into your mirrory face […],
I don’t know how they feel about
being eaten by a river, but if that is their destiny,
could you please remove their livers and give them
to the baby so he can eat liver pate forever[.]
It doesn’t occur to us to ask why a baby would be eating liver pate. Rather, we take this comical pleading in stride, following right along with Healey’s flow of events. It’s surreal but it’s seamless. We even join the speaker in his pleading without realizing the ridiculousness of our request. And when we do realize it, we’re laughing as much as crying about those lost livers.
In terms of form, the majority of the poems in this collection are sticchic, with just a few exceptions. This block-like form works well with Healey’s stream-of-consciousness syntax, allowing us to follow his rapid movements from ketchup to Frisbee to Macbeth in “Ketchup over the Park,” and from Smokey the Bear to pandas to the flu and umbrellas in “All Umbrellas Come from Fire.” His range of images is a giant bouillabaisse that leaves us wondering what’s coming next and how we are even making sense out of such disparate items.
But the poems do make sense. We follow the train of thought in “Ketchup over the Park” because this is how our brains actually work. During the average person’s typical thought process, neurons are fired left and right, creating synapses that, were we to track them on a diagram or a pie chart, we’d likely have trouble understanding the logic of our own thought process. But as Healey is well aware, we are all prone to this kind of stream-of-consciousness thinking. Because our thoughts ramble, too, we give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, and are thus more apt to interpret the speaker’s tangents as more than just the meanderings of a ramblin’ man. We get it.
In short, 10 Mississippi reveals the sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful truth of our daily lives. Healey offers us our shining memories of childhood innocence, and then, just as earnestly, the abrupt but enduring realization that life will never again be so easy. “The child [begins] to fade” (“Lecture on Kickball at Sundown”), and there isn’t anything we can do about it.
Melissa Lindstrum was born in Milwaukee and lived there most of her life. Though she’s spent the last four years in other time zones, she is back in Wisconsin, working and eating lots of cheese in Madison.