By Mike Templeton

If you have never been to the Mercantile Library in downtown Cincinnati, you are missing one of the absolute jewels of our city. The Mercantile is one of fewer than a dozen privately funded libraries in the nation and has been in operation since 1835. On Thursday, December 12, with a Christmas tree constructed from stacks of old books and a bust of William Shakespeare peering from behind, an evening of readings and talks unfolded the from the new anthology, Riparian: Poetry, Short Prose, and Photographs Inspired by the Ohio River. Edited by Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Stewards Sherry Cook Stanforth and Richard Hague, this anthology is the first of its kind in nearly forty years. 

Sherry and Richard opened the event with a short introduction to the anthology. They were both emphatic on just how central the Ohio River is to this region both as a physical presence and as a tremendous source of inspiration for writers and artists. Indeed, Richard Hague pointed out that there are some distinguished Ohio River writers collected in the stacks of the Mercantile Library. 

Music from Lisak and Rowe kicked things off in earnest with a duo of acoustic guitars and harmonies singings songs about the river. First to the lectern was UACC core member Pauletta Hansel who insisted on a photo in front of the Christmas tree made of books before getting down to business. Pauletta’s prose poem, “The River,” is about a small tributary in her eastern Kentucky home (I have childhood memories of fishing and swimming in the river). The poem mixes the bitter and the sweet. The central image in Pauletta’s poem is described as “the river, though nobody called it that” because it was really little more than a dirty runoff where it stood. Though the “not-river” may well carry away debris and trash, it is nonetheless capable of bringing out the Queen Ann’s lace and honeysuckle like any natural river. 

Richard Hague took the progress of nature a step further with his work, “Paddlefish.” The lowly paddlefish, a common and ancient feature of the Ohio River even with its status as “king of the bizarre,” still manages to provide more than enough inspiration for a writer of the Ohio River such as Richard Hague. In Richard’s imagination, the homely paddlefish is “Stuffed with worth and rare nourishment, as a poem might be.” And this particular remnant of prehistory still keeps its “secrets unspoken, deep-diving, undivulged.” 

Crossing the Ohio River is, of course, an age-old feature of the stories of those who came from other places, such as the Appalachians who made their way to Cincinnati to find work in the factories. The river as an image of symbolic and literal crossing remains alive, and Cincinnati’s poet laureate Manual Iris offered reflections of the Ohio River from one who came from far away and now looks at the river as a feature of home. Manuel read his poem, “A poet of the sea stops in front of the Ohio River,” in English and in Spanish perhaps to help us see the many layers of experience one can bring to the river is we are able to see things through the eyes of another. In Manuel’s poem, we read of “souls swimming from south to north,/ seeking the other side of history.” These souls coalesce into the first person: “Accustomed to the sea,/ I contemplate the Ohio,” The river, old to us and certainly nearly as old as the Earth, becomes new in Manuel Iris’s contemplations. 

Many others read, and a few discussed their photographs collected in Riparian. The anthology is a treasure for anyone with a connection to the Ohio River and the region. Richard and Sherry kept the progress of the evening moving, pausing every so often for a song from Sherry and another musical break from Lisak and Rowe. 

In his introduction to Riparian, Richard Hague describes the way the anthology came together as something of a “cosmic design, a ceaseless interflowing of past and present.” All of us in attendance at this reading at the Mercantile Library got to partake of the interflowing of past and present. From Captain Don Sanders’s memories of the boats he knew and boats he only dreamed of knowing, to recent graduates of Thomas More University, we heard poets, writers, and artists animate and illuminate what is arguably the central feature of Cincinnati: the Ohio River.

The Ohio River has historically presented a literal and symbolic crossing. Appalachians crossed the river to find work in the city, African Americans crossed the river to escape the horrors of slavery. People to this day cross the river to find the opportunities this city has to offer. We are certainly proud to see so many members of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition featured in Riparian. The creative contributions of UACC and Appalachians, in general, continue to color the creative landscape of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.Riparian: Poetry, Short Prose, and Photographs Inspired by the Ohio River is published by Dos Madres Press and edited by Sherry Cook Stanforth and Richard Hague. This anthology was supported by Thomas More University Creative Writing Vision Program and The Ohio Arts Council. The next reading is scheduled for February 11, 2020, at 7 pm at the Joseph Beth Rookwood Store.

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Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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