On the River of Doubt with TR and the Boys

       “We were still wholly unable to tell where we were going or what lay ahead of us.
Round the camp-fire, after supper, we held endless discussions and hazarded all kinds
of guesses on both subjects. . . . We had entered a land of unknown possibilities.”
       —Theodore Roosevelt, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, 1919

Our plan: to follow down-stream an unknown river, broken
by cataracts and rapids, rushing through mountains
whose existence has never been even guessed.

Not long after we left town, we passed a single hillock.
Then, vast stretches of marshy forest.

Our boots were sturdy and our rifles waterproof.

I killed a wood-ibis on the wing with the handy little Springfield,
then lost all credit by a series of inexcusable misses.

Brilliantly colored parakeets and trogons,
and the slow current quickened.

My books included the last two volumes of Gibbon,
the plays of Sophocles, More’s “Utopia,” Marcus Aurelius,
and Epictetus, the two latter lent me by a friend.

I will not even mention our difficulties
with the natives, or Douglas, who persisted
in assailing the cook concerning his biscuits.

But I see that I have mentioned poor Douglas.

The boroshudas left marks that lasted for weeks;
I did my writing in headnet and gauntlets.

The deep, sheer-sided, narrow channel.

The arduous hauling of the dugout canoes
through woods and over rocks.

Days of delay when the worst boat split entirely
and another must be fashioned from scratch.

In most respects our party meshed wonderfully;
we suffered only one death by drowning and one homicide.

Poor Simplicio, his life beaten out on the boulders.
One mourns, but mourning cannot interfere with labor.

The unhappy murderer begged to surrender,
but to take him aboard would have endangered us all.

It was very lovely on the river when the sun
had burned up the fog, and looked through it
in a red splendor. The great trees, the network
of bush ropes, the caverns of greenery.

In the end we abandoned all inessential gear,
yet the rapids proved impossible to run.

To lose one’s outfit and provisions—disaster.
To go too slowly, exhaust the provisions,
go forward weakened—the same.

Olive and copper and ebony, the men’s skins
glistened as if oiled, and rippled
with the ceaseless play of the thews beneath.

The ragged bugler kept his bugle to the very end.

The great naked flats of sandstone . . .

The stretches of fine sand, the coarse grass over them . . .

And when finally we emerged we carried something
new—ourselves, perhaps. We knew the River of Doubt

as we had found it. I dream still of our tents
and shoes mouldering near a termite mound,

the broken canoe already gone back to pulp,
shell casings breaking the light at sundown.
JEFF GUNDY's fifth book of poems, Spoken among the Trees (Akron, 2007), won the 2007 Society of Midland Authors Poetry Award. Other new or forthcoming work is in Kenyon Review, Image, Poetry Salzburg Review, Shenandoah, Christian Century, Nimrod, and Georgia Review. He spent spring 2008 as the Fulbright lecturer in American Studies at the University of Salzburg, but is now back at Bluffton University, where he has taught English for a considerable stretch.