Book Review: OYO The Beautiful River

Mark Hamilton’s forthcoming poetry collection, “OYO The Beautiful River,” to be released in print in October of 2020, explores the Ohio River from the vantage point of an individual in a row boat. Separated into two distinct sections, “Spring” and “Summer,” the collection documents a journey down the Ohio and the varying landscapes and mannerisms of river that ensue. Hamilton offers an intimate experience with the natural world, yet does not shy away from sharing the impacts of industry and the devastating results human impact has had on the river.

Hamilton’s poetry confronts the existing binary of elemental nature and the industry that cohabits the same area. He describes the presence of industry almost delicately, not particularly accusatory, but also with acute awareness of the havoc wreaked on the river. We see “a tragedy with fish scraping their bellies / in the silky silt of its toxic soup” and “smokestacks exhaling the quivered air into a mirage of mantis / mandibles tearing flesh–the crane operator hunched in prayer” (Hamilton 2020, 20 & 74). These human created tragedies and structures permeate instances of pure nature. Yet, only so much time can pass before the observer encounters another tragedy.

Each landscape is analyzed, noting the state of the water, any particular scent, and most importantly the wildlife presence. At times, there are large amounts of dead fish as a result of a nearby factory. Or, in the middle of a particularly natural experience, an out of place object—an igloo cooler. The sharp, poignant imagery shapes the form of the collection. As the narrator slowly moves down the river, each image is delivered piece by piece, providing a keen observation. Had the narrator chosen a more “modern” mode of transportation, each observation would be incomplete, or even completely missed.

Not only does the row boat allow for detailed images, it also serves as a connection between humankind and the natural world. This act of traversing down the Ohio and merging the power of river and humankind appears to me as a defiance of Progress. Whereas Progress intends to use the quickest, most efficient manner of transportation, it directly exploits and intentionally ignores the very elements that make travel possible. Constantly being passed by motorized boats of all sizes, the row boat cruises at 3 mph but allows the observer to directly engage with the elements. This mode of transportation serves as a symbiotic relationship of human and river, in which occasionally the human must yield to the power of the river, but ultimately the two work together to make progress (the good kind).

Most importantly, Hamilton’s poetry emphasizes the fact that we need the natural world to survive. We use the Ohio to commute, to create, to explore—but the river needs us too. Stewardship of the land, of the waterways, is crucial. A fisherman cannot bring back dead, poisoned fish to sell. A bird should not have to feed its young fish riddled with toxins. Fish should not have to die because humankind does not want to live in symbiosis. Ultimately, Hamilton meditates: “The Earth cares for us if we let it, / but riddles seem our usual response: / a river without water; food we cannot eat; / water we cannot drink; a swim we cannot take” (83). What kind of life are we living if we cannot enjoy what is here not only for us, but for all living things?

“OYO The Beautiful River”
By Mark B. Hamilton
Shanti Arts Publishing

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