by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
WATER — after air, the element most essential to our lives. Oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface but, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner of the long grey beard and glittering eye tells us, it’s
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
making fresh water the most precious element on earth.
I was born in desert country which taught me to never take water for granted. Wendell Berry’s poem tells us how drought shapes everything, even who a child will become.
by Wendell Berry
I was born in a drouth year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemys soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
From New Zealand, the remarkable Maori poet Hone Tuware gives us this vivid picture of water when it falls from the sky.
by Hone Tuwhare
I can hear you making
small holes in the silence
If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
And I should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind:
the steady drum-roll
sound you make
when the wind drops
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
But if I should not
smell or feel or see you
You would still
wash over me
From my philosophical friend River Rover, whose blogger handle will give you a clue to what he loves about water:
Time’s just a river, we’re all drifting on
unaware of the currents that move us along
Wisdom that gotten is innocence lost
we’re caught in the flow and we can’t count the cost
May Swenson is enthralled by water’s reflective qualities, which let us see the world anew. A flash of thought, then gone in a ripple.
by May Swenson
In the pond in the park
all things are doubled:
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.
The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.
Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut-munching children
is suspended by their
A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure 3,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.
Denise Levertov offers us another aspect of water’s reflection.
Bearing the Light
by Denise Levertov
Rain-diamonds, this winter morning,
embellish the tangle of unpruned pear-tree twigs;
each solitaire, placed, it appears, with considered judgment,
bears the light beneath the rifted clouds —
the invisible shared out in endless abundance.
Water comes in more than one form. Carl Sandburg’s famous poem captures one of its air-borne aspects.
by Carl Sandburg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Billy Collins takes delight in a morning after snowfall.
by Billy Collins
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.
Rivers transform in winter. For William Stafford, that makes him ponder the meaning of his life.
By William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
Water carries a wealth of our memories in its wake, the scents it collects on its way will suddenly time-travel us to a near-forgotten place, to a moment when we were in love, or to a summer’s day when our skittish youth was poised on the edge of sobering adulthood.
by Ginger Murchison
Late afternoons, we’d tuck up our hems
under Minisa Bridge, scrape our white knees
on scrub brush and drowned trees to slide
down the dirt bank past milk-weed
gone to seed, cattails and trash to sit on stones
at the edge of the river and giggle and smoke,
waiting to wolf-whistle North High’s rowing team.
In the shadows where the milk-chocolate river
unfolded, ooze between our toes, we’d strip,
risk long-legged insects, leeches and mothers
for the silt slick on our thighs, the air thick
with the smell of honeysuckle, mud—the rest
of the day somewhere downstream. We didn’t
know why, but none of us wanted
to go home to polite kitchens and mothers
patiently waiting for what happened next,
the way women have always waited for hunter husbands,
kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.
Latin American countries make wiser use of their poets than the U.S. They send them out into the world as diplomats. Pablo Neruda, widely regarded as Chile’s greatest poet, represented his country in Burma, Argentina, Spain, France and Mexico. Imagine sending our Poet Laureates after their time at the Library of Congress on diplomatic missions — women and men who know and respect the value and power of words. What waves might reach now-distant shores?
by Pablo Neruda
Everything on the earth bristled, the bramble
pricked and the green thread
nibbled away, the petal fell, falling
until the only flower was the falling itself.
Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
and in those functionings plays out
the unrealized ambitions of the foam.
Water is not always benign. Torrential rain, flash flooding or storms at sea are all deadly, as Cleopatra Matis reminds us.
The Sea Chews Things Up
by Cleopatra Mathis
When I woke, the waves had gone black,
turning over the macerated
curd of the ocean bottom, heaving its sludge
onto the beach. Some storm far out, I thought,
had ravaged the sea, stirred up its bed,
sent the whole mess flying to shore.
At my feet I found a grave of starfish,
broken and gnarled among the fleshy
snipes and heads. Every shade of death
covered the sand. It looked hopeless
in the pale day but for the birds,
a congress of gulls, terns, and the rarest plovers,
calm for once, satiated, a measure of
the one law: this sea will claim it all—
feed them, catch them, grind their complicated bones.
Angelo Giambra’s poem reminds us that we are not the only ones on our planet depending on its water for our lives. (One hopes that his brother outgrew playing with fire and small creatures.)
The Water Carriers
by Angelo Giambra
On hot days we would see them
leaving the hive in swarms. June and I
would watch them weave their way
through the sugarberry trees toward the pond
where they would stop to take a drink,
then buzz their way back, plump and full of water,
to drop it on the backs of the fanning bees.
If you listened you could hear them, their tiny wings
beating in unison as they cooled down the hive.
My brother caught one once, its bulbous body
bursting with water, beating itself against
the smooth glass wall of the canning jar.
He lit a match, dropped it in, but nothing
happened. The match went out and the bee
swam through the mix of sulfur and smoke
until my brother let it out. It flew straight
back to the hive. Later, we skinny-dipped
in the pond, the three of us, the August sun
melting the world around us as if it were
wax. In the cool of the evening, we walked
home, pond water still dripping from our skin,
glistening and twinkling like starlight.
Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us not to underestimate the power of water.
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The water understands
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Too often, we in the U.S. take easy access to clean water for granted, and abuse the privilege. Here, Kim Dower turns her sharp satiric eye on water as an expensive, brightly-packaged ‘convenience.’
by Kim Dower
I go to the corner liquor store
for a bottle of water, middle
of a hectic day, must get out
of the office, stop making decisions,
quit obsessing does my blue skirt clash
with my hot pink flats; should I get
my mother a caregiver or just put her
in a home, and I pull open the glass
refrigerator door, am confronted
by brands—Arrowhead, Glitter Geyser,
Deer Park, spring, summer, winter water,
and clearly the bosses of bottled water:
Real Water and Smart Water—how different
will they taste? If I drink Smart Water
will I raise my IQ but be less authentic?
If I choose Real Water will I no longer
deny the truth, but will I attract confused,
needy people who’ll take advantage
of my realness by dumping their problems
on me, and will I be too stupid to help them
sort through their murky dilemmas?
I take no chances, buy them both,
sparkling smart, purified real, drain both bottles,
look around to see is anyone watching?
I’m now brilliantly hydrated.
Both real and smart my insides bubble
with compassion and intelligence
as I walk the streets with a new swagger,
knowing the world is mine.
Pete Seeger was a passionate troubadour of many causes. One of his longest fights was the battle for the Hudson River to run clean again.
My Dirty Stream
Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear
It starts high in the mountains of the north
Crystal clear and icy trickles forth
With just a few floating wrappers of chewing gum
Dropped by some hikers to warn of things to come
At Glens Falls, five thousand honest hands
Work at the consolidated paper plant
Five million gallons of waste a day
Why should we do it any other way?
Down the valley one million toilet chains
Find my Hudson so convenient place to drain
And each little city says, “Who, me?
Do you think that sewage plants come free?”
Out in the ocean they say the water’s clear
But we live along the river here
Half way between the mountains and sea
Tacking to and fro, this thought returns to me
Well it’s Sailing up my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson and my country will run clear
Though Pete Seeger is gone, his campaign has been taken up by many others, and the Restore the Hudson battle continues — an American story of the worst and the best in us.
William Shakespeare was born near a river, and wrote his great works in a city that helms a sea-going island nation. Not surprising that he uses water imagery often and well, as he does here, in Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.
And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.
Water is never truly still. It ripples, froths, drifts, tumbles, waves, crashes, spatters, trickles, seeps, floods, gushes, flows and overflows. It changes from liquid to vapor to ice, to every state in between, and back again.
Water is the fundamental element we are most akin to: humans are 60% water. Something to mull over as you sip your next glass of water.
The Poems and Quotes
- Quote from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- “Water” by Wendell Berry, from The Ecopoetry Anthology, Trinity University Press, 2013
- “Rain” from No Ordinary Sun © 1964 by Hone Tuware, Random House
- “Time’s just a river” by River Rover, 2016
- “Water Picture” from Poems Old and New, © 1994 by the Literary Estate of May Swenson, Houghton Mifflin
- “Bearing the Light” from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, © 2013 by the Literary Estate of Denise Levertov, New Directions
- “Fog” from Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg, Cornell University Library Press
- “Snow Day” from Sailing Alone Around the Room © 2001 by Billie Collins, Random House
- “Ask Me” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford © 2014 by the Estate of William Stafford, Gray Wolf Press
- “River” from a scrap of linen, a bone © 2016 by Ginger Murchison, Press 53
- “Water” by Pablo Neruda
- “The Sea Chews Things Up” from White Sea © 2005 by Cleopatra Mathis, sarbande Books
- “The Water Carriers” © 2009 by Angelo Giambra, South Dakota Review, Winter 2009
- “Water” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Poets of the English Language, Viking Press (1950)
- “Bottled Water” © 2012 by Kim Dower. Appeared in Barrow Street, Winter 2012/12
- “My Dirty Stream” song by Pete Seeger
- Quote from Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
- Wendell Berry (1934 – ) author and environmentalist, lives on a farm in Kenucky He’s written over 40 books of poetry, fiction and essays.
- Hone Tuwhare (1922 – 2008) was given the same name as that Maori warrior who was a leader of one of the tribes that is part of his heritage. Tuwhare became an outspoken activist for trade unionism, civil rights, the environment, and against nuclear weapons, as well as becoming New Zealand’s pre-eminent Maori poet.
- River Rover is the blogger pseudonym for a Texas writer and kayak enthusiast, with a contradictory liking for water and cats, who prefers to remain anonymous.
- May Swenson (1913 – 1989) daughter of Swedish immigrants, English was her second language, she published over a dozen books of poetry, including some for young readers, and was honored with several awards, the Bollingen Prize among them.
- Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997) British-born American poet, author of 20 books of poetry as well as non-fiction, served as poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones
- Carl Sandburg (1876 – 1967) one of the best-known and best-loved American poets, published numerous books of poetry and an outstanding biography of Abraham Lincoln.
- Billy Collins (1941 – ) U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, author of mmany books of poetry, dubbed “the most popular poet in America,” recived fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
- William Stafford (1914 – 1993) a prolific poet of Midwestern and Western America, National Book Award for Poetry (1970), Robert Frost Medal (1993)
- Ginger Murchison, editor in chief of Cortland Review, co-founder of POETRY at TECH and 3-time Pushcart nominee
- Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973) Chilean author and diplomat, whose affliliation with the Communist Party stirred controversy. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1971).
- Cleopatra Mathis (1947 – ) has published half a dozen books of poetry, and won the Jane Kenyon Award and 2 Pushcart Prizes.
- Angelo Giambra His poetry has been featured Atlanta Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and Freefall Magazine.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) was one of the key figures in the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, better known for his essays
- Kim Dower is the author of Air Kissing on Mars (2010) and Slice of Moon (2013), both published by Red Hen Press. She lives in Southern California.
- Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014) folk singer-songwriter and social activist, known for “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
- William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) the most famous playwright in history, author of 154 sonnets which are some of the greatest poetry in the English language.
- Midwestern Dust Bowl in the 1930s
- Rainy Takapuna Beach NZ
- Arched stone bridge ar Carnegie Center, Duke and Princeton
- Fog at Stevenson Harbor, British Columbia
- Morning after snowfall
- Wenatchee River, Washington – photo by Flynn L. Son
- Color reflections in water
- Beach after storm
- Rows of bottled water
- Pete Seeger at the Hudson River
- Glass of water
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud