The Gulkana

Ted Hughes

The Gulkana – where it meets the Copper –
Swung out of the black spruce forest, on a pebbly bend,
And disappeared into it,
Hazed with forest fires that had burned for weeks.

Strange word: ‘Gulkana’. What did it mean?
A pre-Columbian glyph.
A pale, blue line, scrawled with a childish hand
Through our crumpled map. It was water
More than water, rocks that were more than rocks.

A scrapyard of boxy shacks
And supermarket refuse, dogs, wrecked pick-ups,
The Indian village where we bought our pass
Was comatose – on the stagnation toxins
Of a cultural vasectomy. They were relapsing
To Cloud-Like-A-Boulder, Mica, Bear, Magpie.

We hobbled along a tight-rope shore of pebbles
Under a trickling bluff
That bounced the odd pebble onto us, eerily.
(The whole land was in perpetual seismic tremor.)
And the Gulkana
Biblical, a deranging cry
From the wilderness, burst past us –
A stone voice that dragged at us.
I found myself clinging
To the lifted horizon fringe of rag spruce
And the subsidence under my bootsoles
With balancing glances – nearly a fear,
Something I kept trying to deny

With deliberate steps. But it came with me
As if it swayed on my pack –
A nape of the neck unease. I’d sploshed far enough
Through the spongy sinks of the permafrost
For this river’s
Miraculous fossils – creatures that each midsummer
Resurrected through it, in a fruit-sweet flesh.
Pilgrim for a fish!
Prospector for the lode in a fish’s eye!

In the mercury light
My illusion developed. I felt hunted.
I tested my fear – it seemed to live in my neck,
A craven, bird-headed alertness.
And in my eyes
Which felt blind somehow to what I stared at
As if it stared at me. And in my ear –
So wary for the air-stir in the spruce-tips
My eardrums almost ached. I explained it
To my quietly-arguing, lucid panic
As my fear of one inside me,
Of a bodiless twin, some disinherited being
And doppelganger other, unliving,
Ever-living, a larva from prehistory
Whose journey this was,
Whose gaze I could feel, who now exulted
Recognising his home, and who watched me
Fiddling with my gear – the interloper,
The fool he had always hated. We pitched our tent

And for three days
Our tackle scratched the windows of the express torrent.
We seemed underpowered. Whatever we hooked
Bent in air, a small porpoise,
Then went straight downriver under the weight
And joined the Arctic landslide of the Copper
Which was the colour of cement.

Even when we got one ashore
It was too big to eat.

But there was the eye!
           I peered into that lens
Seeking what I had come for. (What had I come for?
The camera-flash? The burned-out, staring bulb?)
What I saw was small, crazed, snake-like.
It made me think of a dwarf, sunken sun
And of the refrigerating pressures
Under the Bering Sea.

We relaunched the mulberry-dark torsos,
The gulping, sooted mouths, the glassy faces,

Arks of undelivered promise,
Egg-sacs of their own Eden –

Heavily veiled, seraphs of heavy ore
They surged away, magnetised,
Into the furnace boom of the Gulkana.

Bliss had fixed their eyes
Like an anaesthetic.
          They were possessed
By that voice in the river,
By the drums and flutes of its volume. We watched them
Move like drugged victims as they dissolved
Toward their ecstasy – a consummation
Where only one thing was certain:
The actual, sundering death. The rebirth
Unknown, uncertain. Only that death
In the mercy of water, at the star of the source –

Devoured by revelation,
Every molecule seized on, and tasted, and drained
Into the amethyst of emptiness –

I came back to myself.
           A spectre of fragments
Lifted my quivering coffee, in the aircraft,
And sipped at it.
I imagined our aircraft
As if a small boy held it
Making its noise. A spectre
Peered from the window, under the cobalt blaze,
Down onto Greenland’s unremoving corpse
Tight-sheeted with snow-glare.
               Word by word
The burden of the river, beyond waking,
Numbed back into my marrow. While I recorded
The King Salmon’s eye.
            And the blood-mote mosquito.

And the stilt-legged, one-rose rose
With its mock aperture, tilting toward us
In our tent-doorway, its needle tremor.

And the old Indian Headman, in his tatty jeans and socks, who smiled
Adjusting to our incomprehension – his face
A whole bat that glistened and stirred.