August 31, 2015KR BlogBlogReadingWriting

Blog Discussion of Roger Rosenblatt’s Kayak Morning: Learning to Drift

Throughout this month, we’ll be using the blog to have a conversation about Roger Rosenblatt’s Kayak Morning. Rosenblatt will receive the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in New York City on November 5, and he will be in Gambier on October 2-3 to give a keynote address at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival.

Kayaking is like writing, requiring the same precision and restraint. You are definite, stabbing the paddle blades into the water. Wild swings will get you nowhere. Writing requires generosity toward every point of view. Kayaking insists on all points of view – the water’s point of view… and that of the birds and of the sky, and of the algae and of the insects. Writing is for important things, matters of substance. There is no point in going out in a kayak unless you feel the potential profundity of the act, the adventure that opens before you. You are alone and not alone. No one writes alone. Write, and you are in the company of all who have written before you. No one paddles alone. (16)

Kayak Morning is, inescapably, a book about grief. But it’s also a book about writing. As when he takes a kayak out onto the creek near his house in the early morning, Roger Rosenblatt finds both moments of peace and a strange disquiet in writing. Both are silent, meditative acts, which one does alone, but also never alone. Both are acts of perilous balance: how easy it would be to get carried away, or drown in that flood of words. Both are ways of escaping grief, and sounding its depths.

Rosenblatt works this metaphor gently in the book’s opening pages – a touch here, a stroke there – the way one paddles a kayak, but it’s also clear how crucial it is to this narrative of surviving grief. “All I have to keep me afloat, all I have ever had, is writing.” (14) To write about grief is to search for a way to float on that tide of emotion, letting it carry you without being swept away. And the analogy gives us insight into the book’s main formal conceit – its associational, almost stream of consciousness narrative structure. Reading it is like spending a quiet morning in a kayak. We look at the water, the light, the birds, the houses that line the creek, and the mind slowly fills with words:

Still waters, dark waters, watercolors, waterproof, watermark, high-water mark, waterbird, to be in hot water, brackish water, white water, water main, water lilies, waterworks, waterfront, water bug, water cannon, water table, watershed, dead in the water. (5)

Like kayaking, writing can be a meditative exercise, as long as one doesn’t get carried away by the main current of narrative. Allowing the mind simply to explore its own associations with a single word reveals both the landscape of the emotions, and that final, inescapable snag – “dead in the water” – that threatens to catch at the writer’s delicate craft and sink whatever buoyant spirit this grieving heart struggles to summon up.

The trick, both for the writer and the kayaker, is learning to drift. “Caught swimming in a riptide once, I learned to drift.” (20) What Rosenblatt means, of course, is learning to go with the flow, to resist the impulse to fight against a strong current, or a strong emotion, and instead allow it to carry you, keeping your head above water, not allowing it to pull you under or wear you out. That’s also what a kayaker must learn – not to fight the water, but to work in cooperation with it. And it’s what transforms writing from simply telling a story into a full exploration of consciousness, emotion, and the ways we can find to stay afloat even when swamped by pain. To write fully, deeply, one must learn to lose oneself, surrender to what surrounds you and fills you, even if that’s something as simple as a silent creek at dawn, or as painful as grief. “They say that you can lose yourself in nature,” Rosenblatt writes, as if unconvinced, even after all these mornings spent on the creek. Then he dips his paddle again, going deeper this time, gathering speed:

A curious phrase, to lose oneself. Like the word given in reference to prison sentences. When you’re given a year, a year is taken from you. Similarly, when you lose yourself in a book, you’ve probably found yourself, as you have when you’re lost in your own thoughts. (10-11)

This paradox of how you can find yourself by losing yourself in a book or in thought, even as a year – or a decade – is taken from your life, tells us everything we need to know about the experience of grief. It’s a life sentence, he learns. “You have to understand,” his therapist tells him. “Grief lasts forever.” (20) But even within that prison, one can find a strange calm, a deeper understanding. For a writer, to lose yourself in a book means to find one’s voice, one’s wisdom, in the daily practice of writing. It can feel, sometimes, like drowning. To survive it, one has to learn not to fight against the current, to allow yourself to be carried along, to drift.

Kayak Morning can feel like a strange, drifting book when you first pick it up. Where is this going? a reader might be tempted to ask. But as we allow ourselves to be carried along, we come to recognize its form: it is the drifting way we experience our own thought, our emotions, as we move through life. Like paddling a kayak, we learn to steer our minds gently, staying balanced, and to recognize when losing yourself is really finding the main current of love, or grief, or passion that carries you along.

Read the next post in this series here.

Advertise in The Kenyon Review: Reach an Exceptional Market of Readers

The Kenyon Review is distributed through paid subscriptions and retail distribution (including Barnes & Noble), and is available at more than 1,000 libraries.

Our readers are smart, savvy, and have purchasing power.

Download PDF forms for specifications and reservations. (You must have Acrobat Reader in order to download PDFs.)

Need more info? Contact us and we'll get back to you quickly. Or call Jackson Saul at (740) 427-5389.

All advertising is subject to the approval of The Kenyon Review, which reserves the right to reject or cancel any ad at any time. Advertisements are accepted upon the representation that the Advertiser and its agencies are authorized to publish the contents thereof.