September 3, 2015KR BlogReading

Kayak Morning Blog Post #2

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.

I’d like to pick up the thread of Sergei’s terrific post about Kayak Morning, about grief and writing, about the way the book drifts.  That drift is oddly deceptive.  A narrative unfolds through it, with a beginning, middle, and end.  The narrator sets out in his kayak in the early morning and sets off on a journey of sorts to Penniman’s Creek. It’s a purposeful journey, though the exact purpose remains somewhat mysterious.

We are aware, of course, that this is not a single voyage, but one repeated day in and day out.  There is sameness, and there is variety, of weather, of observations, of others abroad on the water.

Unlike most conventional narratives, however, the structure of Kayak Morning is not causal.  That is, one event or experience does not lead necessarily to the next.  Nor is it episodic in the usual sense.  Watch where we are transported within a few pages:

“Must be close to eight o’clock.  How long have I been out here?  Two hours?  Three? Thoughts come to me on their own steam.  Must be my magnetic personality.  No. The kayak is the draw, like the jar in Stevens’s “Anecdote,” placed in Tennessee to civilize the slovenly countryside. . . .

“In the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, they’ve got a great horned owl in a big, dark cage.  He perches in the back, looking like a man who never leaves his men’s club. . . .

“Water in winter is different.  The boats leave it alone–creek, bay, ocean, as ghostly as a deserted summer town.  Quogue winters long ago were known for shipwrecks.  On January 21, 1897, the Nahum Chapin, a three-masted schooner, went down off the beach. . . .  Melville ends Moby-Dick with Ishmael bobbing on a coffin in the middle of         the ocean.  Riding his strange little vessel, he exists on the margin of a shipwreck.  He is about to be rescued by the Rachel, named for the one who wept for her children.”

And so we are back to weeping for children, the occasion for this extended meditation. But notice how we have–to use Sergei’s word–drifted from Roger’s kayak to the great horned owl, to water in winter, to the wreck of one historical ship near Quogue, to Ishmael bobbing on coffin.  What kind of drift is this?

An obvious answer is that it is associative.  That the narrative drifts from thought to thought, topic to topic, as one’s mind does.  Here the mind, of course, is Roger’s, the narrator’s, and it is entirely in keeping with what he is allowing to happen as he drifts physically in the small kayak.  The boat meanders, though with a certain general direction, and so do the narrator’s thoughts.

But the thoughts are not random–they return again and again to the narrator’s attempts to live, somehow, with the overwhelming grief he feels for the loss of his daughter Amy. With his readers he shares memories of Amy as a baby and little girl, memories of her as a mother herself, watching her father play with her own daughter, Jesse, his granddaughter, which he has continued to do even after Amy’s death.  Drifting with that little kayak, we explore Penniman’s Creek, focusing one moment on a heron or on a school of mackerel or on the ancient funerary vessels of Japan and China.

I’d like to suggest here that Roger Rosenblatt is doing something more sophisticated even than a stream-of-consciousness associative drift: that he’s being quite sneaky.  That what he has in mind, what he’s playing with, is a sweeping musical riff.  He’s so much a virtuoso that we may well not even be aware.

“One day [Miss Jourdan] played “The Blue Danube” and “Londonderry Aire.”  I [as a very young boy] listened.  And when she was finished, I sat beside her on the piano bench and played the two pieces pretty much as she had done, though with simpler chords and a lighter touch.  Miss Cutler and Miss Prescott shrieked with excitement at my small accomplishment.  Miss Jourdan simply gave me an abrupt nod of approval.”

Roger Rosenblatt is indeed a very musical fellow.  The jags and riffs in Kayak Morning brilliantly sweep us along, like currents in the creek.  Like the musical repetitions and phrasings of Mozart and Cole Porter, it’s all to a purpose.

And the ultimate purpose is shape, form.  For that’s what literature does.  It shapes the raw chaos of human experience–including the howl of grief–into a kind of meaningfulness.  Although Kayak Morning is the story of many trips out onto the waters, it also represents, enacts, a single larger going forth and returning.  It is a circle, yes, but change has been enacted by that journey, by the passage of time and current, by thought and music, bringing the narrator, bringing us (for we share the journey) to:

“Grief. The state of mind brought about when love, having lost to death, learns to             breathe beside it.  See also love.

“I aim my boat toward the shore.”



Read the next post in this series here.