Poetry Sunday: “When rivers river to the edge,”
by Arisa White

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I just finished White’s persona-poem book A Penny Saved, a harrowing account of one woman’s domestic abuse and its effects on the entire family, including the children. Narrated in the first person, these poems are so authentically rendered that they remind me of powerful, chilling memoir, and they are going to haunt me for days. Today’s poem is from a new chapbook, Perfect on Accident (Taproot Editions 2018), and I was interested to see in it the author’s shift towards more experimental verse.

“When rivers river to the edge” is in couplets, 11 of them comprising 22 lines if you assume along with me that the title is meant also to serve as the poem’s first line. Syntax, punctuation, and grammar are mostly regular, and the poem’s difficulty is semantic. That is, we can understand the literal meaning of each sentence, but the connections between thoughts are not always obvious or logical; the transitions are sometimes leaps that require the reader to put in more thought and imagination than is the case in more accessible poems. As always, I am using the terms “difficult” and “accessible” here in their descriptive, not pejorative senses. It bears repeating that not all accessible poems are bad poems, nor are all difficult poems good ones. The poems in A Penny Saved are mostly plainspoken, but that does not diminish their potency or interest.

Readers do tend to search for meaning in the written word, but not all poetry is susceptible to this kind of analysis. Sometimes a poem is meant to capture an image, a moment, or an experience, and was never intended to “mean” anything. Billy Collins’s “Poetry 101” offers a humorous treatment of the subject, his speaker protesting that poems are not criminal suspects to be “beaten with a rubber hose” or otherwise subjected to interrogation techniques. Some poems though, and today’s is one of these, can yield deeper meaning when given more effort on the part of the reader. And I am with those who believe that such poems can be the source of tremendous power because they require more reader engagement and, therefore, reader investment.

The poem’s first line (and title) sets the tone with sophisticated word play, “when rivers river to the edge,” using “river” twice, first as a plural noun and second as a verb. The second usage is new and surprising in the way Pound says poetry should be. We learn something new, but it feels true and right, like something discovered but always known at a subliminal level. The same is true of “geometry of thirst.” Geometry is a hard science, exact, true, and two-dimensional. I would not have thought to apply it to a bodily sensation, but it feels right because thirst, especially great thirst, can be as implacable and undeniable as math. The transition from “thirst” to “thousand mouths” makes sense, but then comes another surprise: the mouths are likened to an “empty orchestra.” Because “mouths” is plural and very much so (“thousand”) and because mouths make sound, we can intuit the connection to an orchestra, but it takes a bit of effort. Notice how doing it gets us more invested in the poem by requiring us to think and use our imaginations.

Some poems advance by means of associative sounds, and this seems to be the case with the alliterative “conducted by crash and crest,” a phrase that puts us wholly in the vehicle of the metaphor of the mouth-as-orchestra and evokes the power and sometimes cacophony of an orchestra pit. That it’s is “empty” adds another dimension. Those mouths are thirsty, but they are full of potential sound.

The poem opens in the collective “we” and at this point can be read as including all people. This changes in stanza 3 where the “we” is restricted to “the wounded ones, the daughters,” something narrower even than just “we daughters” would be. This is not all daughters of the world but some subgrouping, those daughters who are wounded and who, as the next stanza tells us, are “incapable of being normal.” A later stanza will refine this further, telling us they are those daughters “incapable of containing their tongues,” something that fits in with the idea of an empty orchestra and of feeling the weight of suppressed expression.

Stanza 2 opens with another surprising (and alliterative) leap, “settle with stones passed through us.” At this point we are aware that the speaker is representing a group of people, and that those people are thwarted: thirsty, mouths “empty” but full of submerged noise, and feeling the weight of something heavy and unexpressed. The next few lines elaborate on the ways the daughters do not fit the normal paradigm. In “Our jokes are filled / with butts” the last word references both cigarettes and the homophonic “but,” a disjunctive word that signals disagreement. These lines give us an image of rebellion, behavior that earns the daughters criticism: their jokes are taken “less brilliantly,” and in a phrase employing both alliteration and triple slant rhyme, they are perceived as being “foul and full of folly.”

The rest of the poem elaborates on these ideas, providing an image of the daughters, arms akimbo, talking back with great gusto. “This is how we do it,” the speaker tells us, day in and day out until the days accrue into “a year” and a lifetime. The idea of thirst returns in line 12’s “we water / our selves,” and it occurs to me that this notion creates another instance of word play with the “Well” of line 11. That is, “well” is an interjection that can precede a sassy sentence, but it also denotes a place where deep water is found. Another example of surprising diction occurs in what the daughters are watered with: “time, sage, and unruly.” Dear reader, which of these things is not like the other? Time and sage are both nouns, but “unruly” is an adjective, and though we do not expect to see disparate parts of speech together in a series like this, we understand what the speaker means. What waters her is time, and cleansing herbs, and a good dose of insurrection. Including an unexpected part of speech in a series—in this case an adjective used as a noun—can make readers pay more attention to what is being said.

The action, expressed through tone, ramps up in the eighth stanza with “We . . . are fed up to here,” and we now can perceive how the speaker feels about being muted and criticized. The daughters are angry. They have had it with “burning bodies, honor, / palavers that are all supply and demand”—with violence, cultural notions of how to behave, and parleys and discussions that go nowhere to reduce that violence and those strictures. We learn more in the next lines setting up an “us and you” opposition; the “you’s” characterized by “greed” and “looking at us with capitalized eyes,” and the “we’s” the female children of people (regardless of race, culture or creed) oppressed by capitalism.

Defiance rules the rest of the poem, with the speaker enacting the backtalk described in earlier stanzas. The focus changes, and from being represented as mute and frustrated and oppressed, the daughters emerge as a powerful force to be reckoned with. What keeps the oppressors in power “will give up. It will die,” the speaker declares. How that change will be accomplished is revealed in the poem’s last and resonant stanza:

We, the daughters, did not fall to earth, arms and legs
splayed in multiplication, we came to start something.

What is intended by that falling-to-earth image? “Arms and legs / splayed” arguably has sexual connotations, and I read it as saying that women do not just happen to appear in the world for the purpose of procreation (“multiplication”). No, they come with purpose and intention, and what they intend to do is to “start something.” The spirit of rebellion so oppressed at the beginning of the poem is now in full flower, and we can appreciate the poem as a positive statement of feminist creed. When we return to the poem’s title after having read its text, it acquires new meaning, and we understand it to describe a condition of overflow, of flood, of tremendous power bursting thorough a dam and now unleashed on the world. When I got to this last line, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

“A poem should not mean / but be” says Archibald MacLeish in his famous “Ars Poetica.” Poems are not like puzzles that must be solved, but sometimes spending extra time with one can yield very satisfying results. Poems like this one that demand more of the reader’s attention and effort risk being passed over by readers unwilling to make the investment. But they reward readers who do. Spending more time with the poem makes it more likely it will be remembered, and when a reader makes a “discovery” that rewards the effort, the poem becomes in a way the reader’s own creation. Letting people make their own discoveries rather than just lecturing them is a much more effective way to communicate ideas, especially when those ideas are controversial, and it paves the way for poetry’s unique power to change and enlarge hearts and minds.


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