What a filthy river! Lined with steel mills
and factories, to swim in it was to smell
for days the oily stink against your skin,
a nausea-twist in your stomach,
uneasy reminder of the river’s phlegmy,
dark green clutch. It was as dangerous
as it was dirty. The bottom dug out
for gravel, unnaturally and unevenly deep,
held invisible currents, eddies, undertows
that could pull, suck and hold you down
until you drowned, or throw you up again
to limb-flash, flail and suck for air.
Each summer it claimed a child
from the cancerous towns along its sides,
as if it were an angry, wounded god
demanding tribute. Each summer
we gathered there to fish for monstrous carp
and catfish no one would ever eat, to swim
and dunk each other beneath the blinding water,
to watch the rich kids carve into the current
white-tipped waves, bronzed bodies balanced
on single skis behind small, sleek powerboats.
By the docks we bobbed in water warm as blood,
the sunlight marching like fire across the oily surface
to burn away all but summer’s touch.
We swam beside the hulk of coal barges
black as the bible’s curse that tore the earth.
All summer we swam in it. What a filthy river!
* * * * *
The July dusk light burns
above the slow push of the current.
The green tangle of woods
and the low-slung Appalachian hills
rise on the opposite shore
close to where you stand.
You could walk the dark slate
of the river then disappear
into the clutching shadows
of those hills, but the sky
darkens slowly and you
wait here at the edge of water.
On your left a ruined barge
protrudes from the river,
an enormous, broken wing.
Grey-rubbled piles of pig iron
lie alongside the rusted tracks
mirroring the river’s course.
Dust off the burnt ground
marks your hands, bare legs
and shoes. A robin darts,
blood-orange, among the willows.
You see you are the memory
the river becomes in you.
* * * * *
The river’s jammed along its sides
with slabs of ice all crumpled
against each other like car wrecks.
The sun is a moth against the blue.
Cold light on the white ground. It will
soon be dark as the slim channel
of open water that still runs
down the centre of the river.
I’m standing on the shore,
my fingers stiff as I toss
lit matches to burn out
in the snow. I pretend the river ice
is set to explode with each spark,
but there’s no sound, only
the blackened stems lying around
my boots like burnt fingernails.
Published On: February 14, 2013
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/130214c.htm