earthweal weekly challenge: THE RIVER SINGS THROUGH US

Sligachan River, Isle of Skye


Pardon me for staying with the river theme for a second week, but I promise you a varied sampling and lots of poetry. As good ol’ Heraclitus says, it is not possible to step into the same river twice; and so while our hearts are deeply afflicted by the spectacle of so many great rivers drying up, we can still find sustenance at their source. Here at earthweal, grief and hope are our Tigris and Euphrates.

What are the rivers saying? Language is not a human invention, though we have resonated it loudly through our echoey brains. Ego makes it our personal possession, but it is actually the world who is speaking, as David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous:

… It is first the sensuous, perceptual world that is relational and weblike in character, and hence that the organic interconnected structure of any language is an extension or echo of the deeply interconnected matrix of sensorial reality itself. Ultimately, it is not human language that is primary, but rather the sensuous, perceptual life-world, whose wild, participatory logic ramifies and elaborates itself in language. (84)


It is this dynamic, interconnected reality that provokes and sustains all our speaking, lending something of its structure to all our various languages. The enigmatic nature of language echoes and “prolongs unto the invisible” the wild, interpenetrating nature of the sensible landscape itself.

Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. So, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world: if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. “Language is a life, is our life and the life of the things” (as Maurice Merlau-Ponty writes in The Visible and the Invisible, 1968). It is no more true that we speak than the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us. (85)

Privileging human speech and language is a mistake of perception, Abram continues.

We may begin to suspect that the complexity of human language is related to the complexity of the earthly ecology — not any complexity of our species considered apart from that matrix. Language, writes Merlau-Ponty, “is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.”

Or did. Abram worries that our language — our ability to sing the river — is slowly becoming no damned earthly good.

As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of rivers is silenced by more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into oblivion and extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance. (86)

Indeed. I wonder if the echo chambers of social media only amplfy the sound of worlds without life — a fulsome crash and fury which only speaks of violence.

I also wonder if a dialect can become so polluted that it ceases at its base level. When you hear the endless torrent of lies coming out of Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine, you wonder how the Russian tongue can survive such industrial-grade filth. The Volga no longer resembles its source.

Here in my native country, the far-right rhetoric is so unhinged from reality that it no longer bothers making sense. The overwhelming majority of Republicans say they believe that President Biden had been fraudulently election. A quarter of the same party embraces the QAnon conspiracy theory that Satan-worshipping Democrat pedophiles are running that sex-trafficking operation that only true patriots can defeat through armed resistance.

As the congressional committee to investigate the Jan. 6, 2019 attack on the US Capitol may sadly discover, publishing the best intelligence on attempt to overthrow the US government by delusional patriots may have zero impact on minds becoming so zealously attuned to the delusional river broadcast 24-7 on media outlets like FOX News.

But that does not have to be our course, as Abram reminds us.

When we attend to our experience not as intangible minds, but as sounding, speaking bodies, we being to sense that we are heard, even listened to, by the numerous other bodies that surround us. Our sensing bodies respond to the eloquence of certain buildings and boulders, to the articulate motions of dragonflies. We find ourselves alive in a listening, speaking world. (86)


Only if words are felt, bodily presences, like echoes or waterfalls, can we understand the power of spoken language to influence, alter and transform the perceptual world. (90)

So how would a poem take substance from a river’s passage from mountain to sea? Run with such a current? Babble in small places and roar over falls? Glitter with cold morning light or haze in the gleam of late summer or ache longingly in winter moonlight? What voyages are found there, which deities are vast in its depths?

For this week’s challenge, help fill the earthweal reservoir with the perpetual poetry of rivers.

— Brendan



Thomas Flavell (late 17th century)

Shannon! King Brian’s native river,
— Ah! the wide wonder of thy glee —
No more thy waters babble and quiver
As here they join the western sea.

By ancient Borivy thou flowest
And past Kincora rippling by
With sweet unceasing chant though goest,
For Mary’s babe a lullaby.

Born first in Breffney’s Iron Mountain
— I hide not thy nativity —
Thou speedest from that northern fountain
Swift through thy lakes, Loch Derg, Loch Ree.

Over Dunsass all undelaying
Thy sheer unbridled waters flee;
Past Limerick town they loiter, staying
Their flight into the western sea.

From Limerick, where the tidal welling
Of the swift water comes and goes,
By Scattery, saintly Seanán’s dwelling,
Thou goest and whither then who knows?

Thomond is clapsed in thy embraces
And all her shores thou lovest well,
Where by Dunass thy cataract races
And where thy seaward waters swell.

Boyne, Siuir and Laune of ancient story,
And Suck’s swift flood — these have their fame;
But in the poet’s roll of glory,
Thine, Shannon, is a nobler name.

— transl. from the Gaelic by George Fox



Homero Aridjis

(transl. Eliot Weinberger)

There is a river
that runs as this river runs
a look crosses it
like a bird dissolving
in white space

its lights moving
it seems motionless
always flying
through a clarity of a present
that was and that will be

each moment it flows to oblivion
with beings and flowers from the earthly garden
and the words that lift to the heights
spoken here

— from Quemar las naves (Burn the Boats), 1975



Mary Oliver

In one day the Amazon discharges into the
Atlantic the equivalent of New York City’s
water supply for nine years.

Just because I was born
precisely here or there,
in some cold city or other,
don’t think I don’t remember
how I came along like a grain
carried by the flood—

on one of the weedy threads that pour
toward a muddy lightning
surging east, past
monkeys and parrots, past
trees with their branches in the clouds, until
I was spilled forth
and slept under the blue lung
of the Caribbean.

told me this. But little by little
the smell of mud and flowers returned to me,
and in dreams I began to grow dark,
to sense the current.

Do dreams lie? Once I was a sad fish
crying for my sisters in the glittering
crossroads of the delta.

Once among the thick reeds I found
an empty boat, as narrow
as a man’s waist. Nearby
the trees sizzled with the afternoon rain.

Home, I said.
In every language there is a word for it.
Deep in the body itself, climbing
those white walls of thunder, past those green
temples there is also
a word for it.
I said, home.

— Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1984



Wallace Stevens

There is a great river this side of Stygia
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,

No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.



Robert Frost

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

—from Mountain Interval, 1916



Elizabeth Bishop

[A man in a remote Amazonian village decides to become a sacaca, a witch doctor who works with water spirits. The river dolphin is believed to have supernatural powers; Luandinha is a river spirit associated with the moon; and the pirarucú is a fish weighing up to four hundred pounds. These and other details on which this poem is based are from Amazon Town, by Charles Wagley]

I got up in the night
for the Dolphin spoke to me.
He grunted beneath my window,
hid by the river mist,
but I glimpsed him – a man like myself.
I threw off my blanket, sweating;
I even tore off my shirt.
I got out of my hammock
and went through the window naked.
My wife slept and snored.
Hearing the Dolphin ahead,
I went down to the river
and the moon was burning bright
as the gasoline-lamp mantle
with the flame turned up too high,
just before it begins to scorch.
I went down to the river.
I heard the Dolphin sigh
as he slid into the water.
I stood there listening
till he called from far outstream.
I waded into the river
and suddenly a door
in the water opened inward,
groaning a little, with water
bulging above the lintel.
I looked back at my house,
white as a piece of washing
forgotten on the bank,
and I thought once of my wife,
but I knew what I was doing.

They gave me a shell of cachaça
and decorated cigars.
The smoke rose like mist
through the water, and our breaths
didn’t make any bubbles.
We drank cachaça and smoked
the green cheroot. The room
filled with grey-green smoke
and my head couldn’t have been dizzier.
Then a tall, beautiful serpent
in elegant white satin,
with her big eyes green and gold
like the lights on the river steamers—
yes, Luandinha, none other—
entered and greeted me.
She complimented me
in a language I didn’t know;
but when she blew cigar smoke
into my ears and nostrils
I understood, like a dog,
although I can’t speak it yet.
They showed me room after room
and took me from here to Belém
and back again in a minute.
In fact, I’m not sure where I went,
but miles, under the river.

Three times now I’ve been there.
I don’t eat fish any more.
There is fine mud on my scalp
and I know from smelling my comb
that the river smells in my hair.
My hands and feet are cold.
I look yellow, my wife says,
and she brews me stinking teas
I throw out, behind her back.
Every moonlit night
I’m to go back again.
I know some things already,
but it will take years of study,
it is all so difficult.
They gave me a mottled rattle
and a pale-green coral twig
and some special weeds like smoke.
(They’re under my canoe.)
When the moon shines on the river,
oh, faster than you can think it
we travel upstream and downstream,
we journey from here to there,
under the floating canoes,
right through the wicker traps,
when the moon shines on the river
and Luandinha gives a party.
Three times now I’ve attended.
Her rooms shine like silver
with the light from overhead,
a steady stream of light
like at the cinema.

I need a virgin mirror
no one’s ever looked at,
that’s never looked back at anyone,
to flash up the spirit’s eyes
and help me to recognize them.
The storekeeper offered me
a box of little mirrors,
but each time I picked one up
a neighbor looked over my shoulder
and then that one was spoiled—
spoiled, that is, for anything
but the girls to look at their mouths in,
to examine their teeth and smiles.

Why shouldn’t I be ambitious?
I sincerely desire to be
a serious sacaca
like Fortunato Pombo,
or Lúcio, or even
the great Joaquim Sacaca.
Look, it stands to reason
that everything we need
can be obtained from the river.
It drains the jungles; it draws
from the trees and plants and rocks
from half around the world,
it draws from the very heart
of the earth the remedy
for each of the diseases—
one just has to know how to find it.
But everything must be there
in that magic mud, beneath
the multitudes of fish,
deadly or innocent,
the giant pirarucús,
the turtles and crocodiles,
tree trunks and sunk canoes,
with the crayfish, with the worms
with tiny electric eyes
turning on and off and on.
The river breathes in salt
and breathes it out again,
and all is sweetness there
in the deep, enchanted silt.

When the moon burns white
and the river makes that sound
like a primus pumped up high—
that fast, high whispering
like a hundred people at once—
I’ll be there below,
as the turtle rattle hisses
and the coral gives a sign,
travelling fast as a wish,
with my magic cloak of fish
swerving as I swerve,
following the veins,
the river’s long, long veins,
to find the pure elixirs.
Godfathers and cousins,
your canoes are over my head;
I hear your voices talking.
You can peer down and down
or dredge the river bottom
but never, never catch me.
When the moon shines and the river
lies across the earth
and sucks it like a child,
then I will go to work
to get you health and money.
The Dolphin singled me out;
Luandinha seconded it.

—from Questions of Travel, 1965


Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

— From In Mad Love and War, 1990


Wendell Berry

All that passes descends,
and ascends again unseen
into the light: the river
coming down from sky
to hills, from hills to sea,
and carving as it moves,
to rise invisible,
gathered to light, to return
again. “The river’s injury
is its shape.” I’ve learned no more.
We are what we are given
and what is taken away;
blessed be the name
of the giver and taker.
For everything that comes
is a gift, the meaning always
carried out of sight
to renew our whereabouts,
always a starting place.
And every gift is perfect
in its beginning, for it
is “from above, and cometh down
from the Father of lights.”
Gravity is grace.
All that has come to us
has come as the river comes,
given in passing away.
And if our wickedness
destroys the watershed,
dissolves the beautiful field,
then I must grieve and learn
that I possess by loss
the earth I live upon
and stand in and am. The dark
and then the light will have it.
I am newborn of pain
to love the new-shaped shore
where young cottonwoods
take hold and thrive in the wound,
kingfishers already nesting
in a hole in the sheared bank.
“What is left is what is”–
have learned no more. The shore
turns green under the songs
of the fires of the world’s end,
and what is there to do?
Imagine what exists
so that it may shine
in thought light and day light,
lifted up in the mind.
The dark returns to light
in the kingfisher’s blue and white
richly laid together.
He falls into flight
from the broken ground,
with strident outcry gathers
air under his wings.
In work of love, the body
forgets its weight. And once
again with love and singing
in mind, I come to what
must come to me, carried
as a dancer by a song.
This grace is gravity.



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