Over and over the bridge from the hill and the ghost farms and the bars and into the town of Cloquet, plumes from the paper mill over bare expanse in the east, smell sharpening the air on the eastern hills. Methane and hydrogen sulfide and calcium carbonate. In winter, rot under shifting parabolas of ice.
Language changes with proximity to the St. Louis River. Close enough, you’ll hear the diphthong given back to the o as it approaches å, river rhythm a kiss that softens the mouth. Milk turns to melk and crayfish to crawdaddy and creek to crick and poplar to popple guided by the slopping muck and foam.
Everywhere a softening. Sweet breads of cardamom and saffron lose their pearls and gain cheap frosting, dull Crisco a dense fullness replacing butter’s slipping stroke on the tongue. Everywhere cracked hands and pastry to guide hope in the cold or mining underground. Homesickness as changing and permanent as the seeking heart of the river.
Language is nothing without shape. Listen to how the words ride, expand, and submerge in the rocky bit you could almost call a stream were it not so rapacious. Lose your presumptions of what a river is and listen for the snag and not the flow. Rapids at the underside of the tongue. Debridement at the teeth.
People from Cloquet say we’re from Duluth, because it’s easier to be from somewhere that someone might know, and because we want to be from the town with the hills and the clear history and the cold great lake. See, there’s us. My aunt points to the St. Louis’ brown line bisecting the blue water of Lake Superior. Dirty entry we’re called.
We speak of the river when we’re together: high, low, nothing abnormal. Gauging its banks’ capacity for destruction and for the things we’ve seen before: claw marks down the steep hills, displacing of soil within that can only be assessed with sensor, not sense, much less common sense not to sneak under the barriers and go where the water made dangerous. Where water made unto itself. Instead of common sense, a touch of sense, a prickling at the eyeflesh, stiffening diaphragm drawn up like a bridge at port. Or pulled low and drawn down, language passed down and pulled up the gullet’s eroded tracks. Opposite of incarnate and more fully here than the carnal, water-sense more present than a body can be.
And some of the old thrust to move along with or submerge bent, to flow toward—a yearning, a leaning. Watching a river: separation, the urge both to join and stay. Sense un-fixed and aching toward, trapped in its borders of girl.
The river felt: a mounting pyramidal arrhythmia, intrinsic turbulence. Nothing tells you about my river. No words save the words that wrap around words. Enter and tumble through foam-coast, wrap and judder a syllable, stretch forward the vowels and swallow false and tongue-heavy, swallow crawdaddy in mud. Crawdaddy willing in its small sharpness to fight. Still knowing its life for its life. Still a being itself under buffet of river being and slime.
When I learned proper Swedish, it had the feel of pearl sugar—crystalline and threatening in its edges toward bone. I learned it the way I learned to eat toffee, using my mouth to search for weak spots, the geography that, with experience, would yield to dull and layered incisor. Gone were the full pillowy shushes of immigrant language I’d heard growing up, the muck of chewed cheeks and heavy tongue. Mouth full of potatoes.
And sometimes the shush mirrors the river’s lap, the river my family settled near in the town that burned to the ground in a great fire. The only non-burned thing for 70 miles, this river speaking its river shush into the char.
A river is nothing without the contours of its journey, continually re-contouring, shaping its path in dug ghost-river gullies. You might say that a river, like a language, is no river but only a series of changing shapes, only walls of erosion and instruction with water an afterthought.
But no one sees the contours save for maps and God and airplanes and maybe a girl in an abandoned fire tower climbed when no one is around, a girl who wants to be part of the verve of it and remember how language moves, how dialect shifts and river guides easy as clay in the ghost gullies.
Source at Seven Beaver, a blue source rich with sunlight dissolving the tannins. Our mouth is in Lake Superior. Why does the river look like root beer? And you’ll get a dozen answers: bacteria, dirt, mercury, algae, bracken filth, but it’s the north through and through, spruce and tamarack and everything once reaching and tall now broken into a stain that thrashes under its own shadow, that moves out from the darkness of millennia-old cliffs, that tears back the ancient when it rises. It’s earth and sky and shadow and lives once lived and water an afterthought.
2012: a flood that brought the clay cliffsides of Duluth and Carlton and Wrenshall and Cloquet and Proctor and Wright and Scanlon and Gary and Barnum and Moose Lake and Atkinson tumbling down, a flood that reached into the cliffsides and grabbed the oldest rock and clay it could find to return rock to itself, a flood that let the river rise and scrape back earth and rise and scrape until the rains stopped and the earth stopped and the river considered stopping but only lowered and thrashed.
Silt, sand, sheen. Woodchips, grey clay, organics. When the St. Louis mounted and tumbled over the rocks and rapids under what used to be the swinging bridge in Jay Cooke State Park, before the churn rose and took the bridge back, it plumed on the rocks in vanilla foam that bubbled atop rich brown water thick with the banks' vegetation, plants one with the river in tannic leach, color their yield to unyielding force.
Root beer, but only here, only at the feet of the birch and the pine and the popple, root beer the color of the arboreal river, then diluted as its mouth swallows Lake Superior bit by dirty bit. Most people think a lake subsumes a river but it’s the other way round, just slower, river consuming in dirty entry.
The upper bluffs: hills covered with pine, spruce, birch, popple, never poplar, never aspen. The St. Louis’ midsection a lying-in-wait of bog and smaller trees. Wet and dark. Air rises in near-solid form. Strange lights grow and vanish. You can feel the sight of the soft land trained on you and your softness. The maddening cannibalistic hunger of a swamp. A swamp is you and what wants to eat you at once. Then, a watershed near the great lake where cliffs rise and the iron of the Mesabi Range reddens the water. The estuary a slough of mercury, though no one knows quite why.
My father taught me from the time I could walk that the river was filthy though it was never so much a direct statement as a series of hints, the way people never speak overtly about their homes unless they are speaking of home as a euphemism or a metaphor, as a grander idea. To live in a place is to hint about it as to speak honestly about your soul or your God is to be silent. A place you live in erases the words for itself before you learn them. Erases the words and replaces them all with here here here here here.
Not filthy but not fit for fishing. You only had to look at its banks—paper mill on one side, match mill on the other and the plant that made soft coatings for the insides of caskets and minivans—to feel the grease and foam of it.
My father left the highway one afternoon on our way back from somewhere and drove to the northeastern bank of the St. Louis. My father does this on occasion: changes his mind, leaves the path to buy caramel apples, find a story the afternoon needs or build one.
The river here shallows at muddy banks as if there’s not enough of it to go around, and you can walk right up to the water and sit down, and that’s what we did, my father pointing out and scooping up the crawdaddies sunk deep in their mud, river a glass dome above them.
Look at the crawdaddies, let’s find more crawdaddies, and now I can see he was reenacting a scene of discovery from his childhood, his discovery of the crawdaddies, and I used the word crawdaddy because it was the only one I had for the tiny lobster and the child-father and the shushshush of the shallows and for the afternoon, the river’s thick motion and shushshushing, cocoon of silence over the surface so much a part of the sound of the river, an instructive part, so obvious and nonexistent that I could map its trajectory and anatomy just by listening to the silence hover and to the word crawdaddy, and people would later make fun of me for the word that traced the lobster and the hover and the shallows’ shushshush and the home for the beings under the water under the bridge, so I learned to say crayfish and the river disappeared, and not only the river but the map it gave to my tongue, the body of itself in my memory, the little homes of the creatures who wanted to live in the filth, the children of men learning English by listening to the rhythms of home and the rhythms of away and the river shushshushing and the conifers bracketing and the brown empties glinting and the river shapes stretching away and away and the plumes of the mill that meant dinner and the long legs of the insects, and now the voice of the river in my mouth gone away. Gone were the stories I couldn’t tell until the river gave me its voice.
The St. Louis diverges over its nearly 200 miles and gives itself over to small tributaries, needing neither depth nor concentrated volume to achieve its force. The cliffs that hem it in build its voice. It joins the East and West Savanna Rivers to become the Mississippi, flows across the Vermilion River portage into Rainy River, bracketing the northwest border of Lake Winnipeg.
The great fire. Cardamom, saffron.
1918: a fire that desolated great swathes of forest and farmland, entire towns and fleeing beings, a fire that conformed its shape and its scope through Cloquet to that of the river. River of fire, fire’s outline and absence.
And to know the fire and the river and the long vowels of my family, you must know the railroad, you must be able to see the lines snaking through time and space. But never connect them and never force an image. Just soak in the grooves of their contours, their middle distances, the shape that girds a home and its fates.
James J. Hill bought tracks in northern Minnesota for his iron-ore transport from the Mahoning mine down through the Iron Range’s crescent belly, through the Congo, Paupores, Mirbat, Nagonab, Draco, and Brevator stations in the river’s valley to the Lake Superior docks.
Memory of fire, a fire doesn’t let a river and its earth forget. Civics of fire and river: Where are our homes and where do we go when we burn? What will we dredge to assuage? You can feel, you know, on the backs of your shoulders, when the summer’s too dry and the water tower stands empty.
A skirting: the peculiarities of grace, its curse or fortune applied according to the contours of a life or a river and the rocky cliffside or worn banks it moves against.
Once, we burned to the ground. That’s what anyone can tell you after day one of Cloquet civics, and then they’ll go to the museum where there are flames painted child-head-high on the walls so they can know themselves surrounded. We hid in the river, says the elderly lady who didn’t suffocate. The river saved. The river’s cliffs guided the fire until the river became fate, unjust destroyer and inexplicable savior.
For we can say that there is no one river, that a river’s character in a place is as individual as the tongues of the people there, though you’d never know until you learned to listen for it. Or until you moved away and missed it only as an unnamable absence, the way a person you thought you knew can turn unfamiliar right before you.
The St. Louis exposed between Carlton and Cloquet where legend has it the bottom of the earth got kicked out. Violet veins thrumming against a consonant finding its depth in the under-tongue darkness, rising on a vowel diphthonged to be twice as long as expected, carrying the uncertainty of a word’s journey.
This is how things are built. This is how rivers and words become barriers and conduits. The agonist: a push outward, expansion, a trying of new things. Antagonist: water that moves against its true ability to create harm, a word said in the way its home teaches.
The vestibular system of a quaking popple, the word popple round in the cheek and ended when tongue, teeth, and palate meet. Friendly vibration in lieu of the growl upon which the dictionary insists. Warm and yellow with a barely-there shiver, a thrill to it. Scatter of color, small dazzle, sweet. No longer summer, not quite fall. An east wind from the great lake right on schedule though you’ll never think of it until you sniff it out as absence night after night in the city.
Like all rivers before highways, it was transportation, though near Cloquet, with the bottom kicked out, no canals could tear down millions of years of rock, and large boats wouldn’t navigate the rapids and the sudden strictures. You’ll know it’s home by what the Voyageurs called dalles, a word with two meanings. Rapids but also the cliffsides they throw themselves against with a roar. Cliffsides and the rapids’ volume they build by locking them in.
You can hear the dam for a good mile before you reach it, the low driving force of it, an aspiration gasped and spat out to make you believe the river’s depths rival the sky’s. Easily mistaken for rage until you catch the low notes, the melody under the great harmonic reverberations of water. Even when a river has gone dry, you can catch its melody, and even at street corners, you can listen for the old unmapped and underground springs, or you can pull them up from the gullies etched into your throat, I promise you it works.
And a midgut garrotte. And as if the words had flowed into, yielded to, cinched, and formed the throttle. A tightening cord before moving on, onward-pressing to say what is there to say.
Portage, stumbling block. Melk, instead of milk. Small reminders. Mud, marshland. Is a river a river if it meets obstacles, if at times it ceases to flow? Ope, I didn’t see you there. Ope, I’ll just sneak right past you. Ope: a Minnesotan exclamation of both surprise and guilt, an admission that one’s body has once more found itself in the wrong place. A northwoods sound that uses the voice to make the body waver in its journey, vanish, then come out the other side intact, unscathed, more itself for the forgetting. A necessary fumbling and disappearance.
Cardamom girded by dense bread—flour, Crisco, egg, and yeast—until it splits open in ether fumes, the first breath drawn on a frosty morning. And my father’s favorite part of winter, after those early mornings when he descends the well to smash its surface into motion and ascends with ice and rage coating his mustache and sits on the rock stoop of the farmhouse with black cardamom pods in a towel and smashes them into pieces with a hammer and brings the carnage to my mother to be woven into the dough.
Under the water: the old names, the sleeping gods. Graywhacke, argillite. Red clay. In the shallow troughs lay silt and clay you might mistake for something more common than the dismembered form of glacial Lake Lapham. There are no ghosts here, only bodies re-made. Enunciations made slurred, soft shushes from the mouths of my family. Soft mouths under the gaze of the bogs, dialect tumbled like agates in the hollows of cheek and lower palate. River body re-formed, a living ghost in the throat.
A river, like a language, winds and stumbles and has no narrative. People might claim it, name it after the cross of St. Louis given by the French king, build around it, use it, but it’s always itself. The only story it has is the one it gives you: vowels elongated, digraphs ground between molars.
River unbound, all sides swoon-jostle. Then, a hastening. Mill of plumes, main street tunnel. River staid stayed, banks rising from rail lines, Catholic spire southward. Mud and wretch, crawdaddy climb-sinking. Paper mill, match mill, Jim Beam and mercury, watershed north. Here a harm silent, melody rewriting. On atlas: devastation future. Watch the onrushing verdant unruly. Through the dam and reaching from under, sloshing hum foam. Quickening of decomp, ensoulment at the algae, soap slop transkingdom. Teeming toward vile, behemoth. Pushes back lake unhurried, waits vile. Moans unhurried, it waits. Flow border and bordered, burdened by border, by bank and by cliff. By fall-away life, mud and transkingdom, down down slope under. I can hear the future from here.