In “Barge,” I had an open-ended frame, as I had in Pearl. I did not know when it would be complete; I only knew that I wanted it to be open formally. I also knew that the idea of barge would lead me ultimately to thoughts of transport, and the Greek idea of a heavy-laden, slow-moving boat that takes souls to the underworld. After several sections of the poem dealing with the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, interspersed with observations of children in the countryside, section XV of “Barge” ends”
Look, if the barge will take us over
All I care for now is poetry
And the picking, scratching, at your side
There’s got to be something more to it
Thus, from visions of death and destruction, the poem serves as a vehicle to transport the reader to thoughts of the afterlife, which he encounters in section XVI.
I wrote section XVI pretty much straight out, relying on my memories of many different depictions of the river Styx and its concomitant boatman, not only from ancient poetry, but also from later literature and visual art. This is how Propertius wrote, and probably how his Roman colleagues wrote as well. They wrote in the moment, with everything in past literature that could be summoned just there in mind, without excessive literary reference. I had an ulterior motive as well. I wanted to couch the entire section in the conditional. Hopefully, that conditional could be written lightly, so as not to overpower the reader. In the last stanza, for instance, there is only the verb in the first line to peg it to that tense. I chose to have the final line of the poem fade out in ellipsis as that is my characterization of the afterlife — a fading out into nothing.
There are a number of other references to river that separates this world from the underworld in Propertius’ poems. One of the most telling is the seventh poem of Propertius’ fourth and final book. In it, the poet narrates the appearance to him of his recently deceased girlfriend Cynthia’s ghost. The majority of the poem is taken up by a long list of complaints uttered by the ghost, mixed with many fascinating details about their relationship and the poet’s life after his girlfriend’s death. In Cynthia’s depiction of the river Styx here, there are different fates after death:
For separate resting places are allotted beyond the vile stream,
and each party is rowed across different waters.
One bears Clytemnestra’s disgrace, or it carries
the Cretan woman’s wooden monstrosity of a would-be cow.
Look! another route is taken by a crowned pinnace
where a happy breeze caresses Elysian roses,
where the rhythmic lute and where Cybele’s bronze cymbals
and Lydian plectra sound with a mitred chorus.
Per Contra Winter 2006-2007