These poems are mostly set in Tennessee and the rivers are literal and metaphorical; sometimes connecting people to the landscape, sometimes the connections between people or roads that take us somewhere else. Some rivers are passive, taken for granted until we notice them. Others are dangerous, like the first one in “River Man” which starts
“We swam the Tennessee River
with your dead eyes open to us, silent within
willow fronds on the surface, green tendrils
. Your body hung there, suspended
for days. No one knew you, or counted you missing,
or turned the shore end over end to discover
It was an accident – finding you.”
The poem ends:
“You were a sentence in the newspaper.
. Unloaded from your house
of sticks after the last swimmer passed – no name,
no hometown – your cells swollen, sloughing into the vast
throat of river,
. you were the voice
imagined in our watery dreams, trapped beneath glass,
the liquid breath over the words we finally found for you
on the shore.”
The poem flows through its details and the isolation of the two solo lines, “It was an accident – finding you” and “You were a sentence in the newspaper” echo the sense of isolation of this corpse, found by accident since it was hidden by the willow fronds, and left unidentified. The poem doesn’t reveal the cause of death – whether accident or deliberate – leaving the reader to speculate and think around the clues left in the poem. “If Only” has a metaphorical river, “I’m down to these words./ If only the river cut straight/ across the land like roads, pitched/ north to south, simple, expected.” This poem’s river islands and separates:
“If only my heart would beat slower.
If only someone had warned me how this
If only I could hear beneath your silence,
read the words behind your eyes.
We leave each other to our privacies.
If only we weren’t so good at that.”
Not all the poems are dark, there is some humour. In “The Black Ant”, an ant crawls on a white suit worn by a late uncle laid out in a casket,
“Your eyes widen with a strange mix
of horror and amusement, as if you
can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
It’s always hard at times like these,
when emotion hovers between extremes.
That’s why the family put out all those pictures
on either side of the casket, ludicrous poses,
funny faces, sideways hats and tongues
sticking out. They want us to laugh,
but to have enough sense to cry”
The final poem, “Rivers Within Us” reprises the notion of river as connector,
“You see what you look for, someone said, and I think that’s mostly true.
Still, I hope I’m surprised by turquoise skies roaming
the back of the storm, the sacred heart of trillium daring
to rise from the deeply-patched underneath. Even something as simple
as a blade of grass braving the crack in a driveway is enough reason
to believe in miracles. What I’m saying is, there are rivers within us –
whole galloping herds of horses, hummingbirds that beat
their tiny hearts millions of times between the bee balm and the sage.
Any moment now, we may open a door and enter a green field
and the knot of fear will be untied. The roots of a tree
may curve beneath us and unearth our heart. This is how much the world
needs us. The river may swing its wide current and catch us in its arms,
a small blue spear of joy welcoming us home, while all around us,
the whole world whispers, What took you so long.”
It ends the collection on a philosophical, hopeful note. Sandy Coomer’s voice is rooted in the natural world but with respect rather than sentiment. It’s also a world of human interaction and compassion. Her river is warm, clear and nurturing and its invite extends to all.
“Rivers within Us” is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. The review was written from an advanced review copy.