States of the River

after a series of 8 lithographs, Ellsworth Kelly, 2005

river breaks you open 
            in this gallery of light     you’d forgotten
water’s blood-warmth, the trapped
            minnows’ sharp     back-and-forths 
their plump velvet     you seined
            with your grandmother’s ironed
white towels—pick up your voice
            and sing     pick up your bed
and walk     or the story will hide in the river
            you don’t follow

above the generous & cobbled     flow
            gray-stone sky     gulls soaring
updrafts     you are flush with lessons
            on ease & effort     you soften     
lift, wing over the sparkling

January’s Wolf Moon
            howls     licks the Mississippi’s
cold black belly      scattered light   
            ghosts of the hundreds lost
here, where one river couples     with another     
            Sauk mothers and grandmothers          
fleeing gun-flash     children
            strapped to their backs
the Father of Waters folding
            over their bodies     do we blame
the water or ourselves?

once you squatted between boy-cousins
            canoeing home from the limestone
bluff     tough-guy-style     mindful of black-
            anvil sky, the smell of rain before
it spills     distant lightning’s bright scars
closer & closer

can you imagine how deep     the story?
            word after word     below the pulsing
crosshatch, a hungry current
            every year a child dies    
sometimes     two together
            one trying and failing     to save
the other     eddied down by mean

the word is the work     you want
            to crawl into     the way
when you were eight     you learned
            the dazzle of underwater     gold,
chartreuse, emerald     nothing
            muted     your uncle pulled you
out     just in time, he said     all you wanted
            to rest     in the hum of the glorious    

you are given    a ribbon of shell
            & rock & bone     a river to hold
your head above water      a prayer
            caught in your throat 
this stew     this spoon, this
            sundown effervescing into glistening
waves      rocking you
headwaters begin     without intention
            the child follows     a meander of glint
you don’t      expect to love
            but you do    you remember
someone called this     the mystical
            brotherhood of atoms
you slip off your shoes, step in     & call it

—Sara Parrell