Review: The River Lock: One Boy's Life Along the Mohawk by Stephen Haven Print E-mail

river-lock-190(Contrary Magazine Summer 2009)

A Poet's Memoir

You’re not likely to read a memoir as good as Stephen Haven’s. Its brilliance lies in his fearless blend of the past in the present. In his mid-forties, the author is haunted by a wounded adolescence. On a pilgrimage, he returns to his hometown to discover why he's so obsessed. There, the still-ripe memoires of twenty and more years past unleash a torrent of wonder and regret. The only way to manage the deluge is to stir the past into his feeling for the past. Doing so, Haven crafts nuances and complexities about memory and loss few memoirists achieve. It may be that his ability springs from his primary calling. Haven is the author of two fine poetry collections, Dust and Bread and The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks. To say The River Lock is a poet’s memoir invites questions. How does a poet recall? Does he remember differently from us non-poets?

In 2003, Haven takes a semester sabbatical and journeys to his hometown, Amsterdam, New York, population 5800, thirty-eight miles from Albany, along the Mohawk River. The memoir’s cloying subtitle is a misnomer: this "boy’s life" is his adolescence, his leaving home, and his prodigal return. But the lock metaphor works. Walking the old working-class town, Haven finds—the moment an old girlfriend’s name is spoken, a ballfield or park comes into view—how quickly the pooling past pulls him under in its fast-welling and deep-bottoming waters.

Soon, Haven resurrects his old hell-raising buddies—Frank, Woody, Murph—who seem unfazed by his regret-less leaving for college long ago. A week spent drinking in bars or huffing at hoops loosens the memory valve. First recollections appear every-mannish-American—days half-wasted smoking pot, chasing skirts, sneaking out at midnight, stuff he thought (wrongly) his Episcopal priest father wouldn’t know. All, unremarkable fact. But roiling beneath is Haven’s existential tack: the vulnerable self, who’s submerged in these bodies of remembrance, has to narrate his way out, time-bridge the boy-man emotions: how could I have been he who I’m discovering is still so much me.

Most intriguing is Haven’s weave of reentry and escape, both of which grow more imperative as the book progresses. Having abandoned what his buddies never left has already pocked him. Thrust back to antic youth, Haven remembers himself as lost, as dolt, as PK (preacher’s kid), when swizzling beer was the only remedy for teenage angst. In the swoon of "I’m-18-again," the pimples pustule and pop once more.

But Haven’s essayistic enough to unhook what he’s angled for. About his buddies, he writes, "I do not condemn them now and try also not to indulge in self condemnation. Though I am slightly less forgiving of my own past, the ability to suspend judgment has helped me draw intimately near to a wide range of people, though sometimes at a price, sometimes smothering my ability to understand, in ever more complex ways, the human thing I am."

In all this, there’s the tension of the memoirist who wonders how and how much to link past and present. Such self-consciousness makes parts of the memoir feel pre-grieved. And yet isn’t every buried piece of our treasured past we do recall, recalled elegiacally? Maybe that’s the poet’s gift—his stanzaic, compressed lament. Haven squeezes complex emotions into brisk scenic sections and chapters in which the mature witness grieves what the still-cocky adolescent won’t.

The meditative quality of the book, though less in quantity, is Haven’s finest suit. For example, one theme is the sacrificial and forgiving love his parents showed him, love which did not save him from teenage trauma and whose beacon he sees now once returning has opened his heart: "At what point did my mother look out the window of our Amsterdam home, with four young children around her, and see in intimate detail a world she never would have chosen?"

In the end, Haven needs to let Amsterdam go so that he might let go of a grudgingly unresolved self. He brings long-ago closer via this drive-through visit, preserving the myths and deflating their burden. There’s room for a kicker, too. Fleeing town, Haven realizes it’s time he propose to Terri, a woman who will (we already know) say yes and become his second wife. And yet his sudden made-up-mindedness is surprising, one neither author nor reader expects.

The shiftiness of time is the memoir’s ostensible subject. The trick is for writers to get even with time, if only temporarily, to stand naked in and be unafraid of its ping-ponging simultaneity. Haven does more than get naked and even with time. He lets the runaway channel of the past wash him ashore.