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Book Review: Sex and the River Styx

Sex and the River Styx

by Edward Hoagland

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011

For those readers who’ve been following the serpentine path of Edward Hoagland’s publishing career since the early 1970s, there is a dogged luminescence in his latest (and possibly last – we’re none of us getting any younger) essay collection, Death and the River Styx, that not even a Foreward by Howard Frank Mosher can spoil. This latest volume sports such a Foreward – Mosher fans won’t miss it, and all others might permissibly view it as a kind of rhetorical counter-balance, a bombastic trumpet-blast before we get to sit back and listen to the soft etudes and pensive adagios that follow.

More pensive than usual, for our greatest essayist is growing old. The ungainly-sturdy frame with its elastic elbows and loping walk, the undemonstrative ability to go all day and sleep rough, the cavalier disregard of the body’s complaints – these things are all gone now, and the curse of a writer’s mind is precisely that no small detail of their going is unnoticed.

There are times in this latest collection when the querulous voice of old age – almost whining, though it feels like sacrilege to use that term with this particular writer – slips right through the guise of art and speaks straight to the reader in ways that can’t help but be unedifying:

We can map every yard of the Earth from space, telephone from moving cars, melt the shelves of Antarctica, sock a cancer radiologically, and get a hard-on from a pill. But it’s all pell-mell, novelty as an addiction. Normality implies a permanence that people doubt, although their unease may be subterranean and perhaps they find the Lord on Sundays to tidy up.

These moments occur more often in Death and the River Styx than in any earlier work, even the ones whose ostensible purpose was to complain. It’s the underlying tone that’s changed. Ceaselessly in this book Hoagland identifies himself as an old man, and it’s a defining characteristic of old men to believe the world has terminally lost its way. It hasn’t – it can’t, because there’s more than just one way – and in our best old men, lost balance presently returns and brings humor with it. Hoagland lapses here and there, but he always comes back to us, stranger and more beautiful than ever. In any other writer of his age, a glowing little apostrophe like this one from “Curtain Calls” would be mere posturing, but not Hoagland:

If heaven is on earth, it’s hardly contradictory to love sunshine chevroned with tree shadows in the woods, plus the low-slung moss, a tiger-colored butterfly, the Tiffany glitter of a spider’s web after a gust of rain, and the yellow-spotted salamander emerging from under the nearest log – yet feel content to die.

That very dichotomy – the toughest one to achieve, try though you might – shoots through all of Death and the River Styx; even when the topics are more tangible (there are travel-pieces here on such far-off destinations as Uganda and Tibet), the final topic is never far away:

… accepting death as a process of disassembly into humus, then brook, and finally seawater demystifies it for me. I don’t mean I comprehend bidding consciousness goodbye. But I love the rich smell of humus, the true woods soil, and of course the sea – love rivulets and brooks, lying earthbound, on the ground. The question of decomposition is not pressing or frightening. From the top of the food chain I’ll reenter the bottom. Be a bug …

The validity here comes from a deep source: Hoagland has always been a walker in wood and field. He admits in this collection that he has largely given up far-travelling – he too much likes the company of the dogs he would have to leave behind (who aren’t getting any younger either) – and when he remembers the vivid highlights of his past, like “trailing a grizzly unarmed so closely that water was still trickling into the prints of its paws,” he’s more clearly than ever remembering something that will never happen to him again. But you can’t walk in wood and field for any length of time (much less soak up the perpetual present in which dogs live) without feeling at least the prickings of a very impersonal kind of renewal:

I’ve spent countless hours on the banks of ponds, gazing into the amber water as flakes of dead organisms, animal or vegetable, swirled slowly toward the bottom, while living threads arose from the silt on pencil-thin currents, to whirl upward gently and incrementally as though recharged.

Hoagland isn’t a disembodied spirit – not quite yet, anyway – and like any friend to nature, he’s an enemy to short-sightedness. He viscerally dislikes that so much of the natural world he knew as a young man has now vanished, and he has no more patience for corrupted cycles when they occur in the purely human world of politics, as several of his ill-tempered asides demonstrate:

The somersault that elected Obama shouldn’t erase our recollection of other somersaults – Jim Crow recapitulating much of slavery for a hundred years after slavery’s nominal eradication, or George W. Bush convincingly paraphrasing some of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam lies less than four decades after Johnson was driven from office because of them.

But the longest-sounding note of Sex and the River Styx isn’t rancor but wonder. “Small Silences” hits that note perfectly:

The plopping raindrops, wobbly riffles, crosscurrent zephyrs, the penny-sized and penny-colored springs that replenished the margins of the pond from underground, pluming hazel-colored, endlessly rising-and-falling individual grains of sand, irislike around the black pupil of the actual hole, lent variance to the velvet water, near dusk, or bight mornings, when it shone in the mini-forest like a circlet of steel. During a thunderstorm it seethed, fingered madly. Then when the clouds cleared off, in the batty moonlight, the shadows seemed crafted differently than might be cast by any sun.

Personally, I don’t care if it’s foolhardy: I’m hoping for another collection.