The River Bridge at Askole*
What are they laughing at?
The clouds making no vows,
In the morning, in the evening,
How easily they pass over
The stone bridge spanning the valley.
( Japanese Waka, 18th C)
From this great, green torrent
The spirits of terror sprout forth—
Between the ragged shoals
Harsh gutturals break
In furrowing spells;
On the bridge, like a frail-masted craft,
The creaking swing sings out a prayer
Crouched in rhythms of fear.
Birds scream their wheeling rounds
Above the river’s din;
My head pulses in the roaring wind,
Back and forth time’s threshold
The storm of life flows
The bridge, the soul’s crippled barque
Of distance, age, habit
Patches of childhood, lustre of dreams
Received on wilder shores, silver streams
Fresh and shiny as pebbles in the mouth,
Sacraments at nascent shrines
Painted trees, flowers, barns,
Sacred art, chorals,
The skein is unraveled.
Flowing river, tugging wind,
The senses here refined
All galleries, shapes rescind—
Everyone an artist, in the studio of the mind;
Flecked canvases of jade and blue,
Making what we must of life
With tactful fingers, textures, taboos;
Every dawn a caress,
An innocence we may express
In silence, or in words,
Vulgar or cultured,
Bridge or poem
May stand or fall.
Askole is in Kohistan, NWFP, Pakistan. It is not to be confused with ‘Astore’, in the Northern Areas. The river Indus flows through a narrow gorge near Askole. A rope-and-swing bridge spans it.
© This poem was originally published in the collection Riverbeds Flowing (1999, rev 2009)