Skip to main content

The River

Impossible to verify its one and only source:
a trickle here, a darker patch there in the grass
in upland country, on a bald plateau,
a trace squeezed out of rock, the mountain’s bulk.

It may be, once, that transhumancing shepherds knew.
There is a place, a mile or two below its origin,
where one might say for certain, ‘This is it.
This is the course to which the other courses
will contribute, will be tributaries,’
though a man’s hand easily might dam its flow.

Racing past the first abandoned farmhouse,
bounding on beyond the village where the road starts,
gathering recruits, the stream requires a bridge and has a name.
It’s on the map. Its cuts and curves are deeper
and its pace more dignified. It puts on weight.
The towns it passes are its progeny.
The squared-off, fertile fields to right and left
owe everything to this broad beam of water,
thing of use, this quiet and obliging beast of burden.
Men’s hands, time and time again, have dammed its flow.
Its economic virtues overtake its lyrical.

In some part of its thwarted, interfered-with brain,
the creature has a memory, a long way back,
of when it roared, and playfully destroyed,
of when, at whim, it granted or withheld,
when men bowed down and prayed
and sacrificed that which they least could spare
in hope to earn the favour of a god.

The light of reason since has overtaken faith.
Its final service rendered, unresistingly
the animal gives up its great and broken heart
into that greater element
which no idea, no ingenuity has overtaken, yet.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by Peter Hetherington