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By Simmons B. Buntin

Salmon Poetry, 2005

This long-grass dance with bellowed coo
and craning head and I think it was fire
on its chambered breast.
Who knows how long that passion
can light up the prairie sky?

From its beginning — with a body “ecstatic in the swirling / rhythm of itself” to its rhythmic closing — “the slow echo of stone chipping stone” — Riverfall is a collection of poetry filled with the real and imagined geography within and around us. The first section, A Body of Water, spans the Western hemisphere, from the trickle of a mountain stream to a series of eloquent letters by Charles Darwin to his sister, circa 1832. On the Orchard’s Edge explores the brambly places at the edges of fields and mangrove swamps and startling memories. The book closes with The Last Harvest, a selection of beautiful, mythical, and often haunting reflections on place, and the places we can no longer attain. Altogether, Riverfall possesses you like the archaeologist in “The Bone,” where you’ll find yourself “flowering / down while my blood runs to the river.”

Sample Poems

Indigo Bunting

This is music, he said,
and his voice climbed
the thin ladder of air

like a cat chases moths,
tumbled like
the river desperate

in flood — his chest filling
with the thick
liquid of song. This

is music: not so much
the silver-chorded calls
or the silent intervals

of indigo flash
between yellowgreen limbs,
but the complete cessation:

the wind, the river, the earth’s
core groaning
among its fiery teeth

to hear this simple song.

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Letter No. 1

21 January, 1832

My Dearest Catherine,

Passage to the Cape Verde Islands,
a minor stopover for the Beagle,
but a major one for myself.
Oh, if you could have seen my face — 
the color of stitched linen at Downs
(where last I have seen either you or Susan).
How can I explain my misery at that time?
The tormenting waves, the incessant rocking,
always rising and collapsing
as my stomach did the same.
Fitzroy is a fine man,
as he would look in on me while
I lay idle at sick bay;
But Wickham, his first mate,
knew no friendship for me.
My quarters fare little better — 
I share the poop cabin,
and have my drawers; the two others
(officers both) have lockers.

16 March, 1832

Finally it is Spring — 
it seems as if even these vast seas
know the changes. They are richer,
though I knew well before we reached the mainland
we were there. A single leaf, a barkless twig,
a clod of saturated grass, still living — all signals.
No beauty exists in all the world
such as in these tropical lands.
In all my days of studying,
under Henslow or even Sir Adam Sedgwick,
I was never prepared for the absolute
numbers and grand diversity of life — 
of species. I have been able to collect,
though I must have killed
hundreds of insects, small mammals, and birds.
(Do not worry, Catherine, I know
how you love life. These species are too numerous
for my sampling to harm.)

One butterfly must be named for you — 
its wings are the majesty’s blue blazoned
with scarlet, violet, and even silver.
How much it reminds me of your favorite brooch.
These lands have too many more to describe,
the brilliantly colored parrots, the gay
primates swinging on twisted branches…
Father must accuse me
of lizard-catching now, as well.

Yet in all of this beauty, one thing
remains disturbing. Here
on Bahia, on the Northeastern coast
of Brasil — “chiseled into the delirious
greenness of rainforest — 
man holds man captive.
Nothing plays enchanting in blood
mixing with sweat on the whip-cuts
of the negroes. Nothing enchanting
in the deep brown skin
chained with iron coils.
You must see the difference.
I collect a few specimens for knowledge,
for all–it is my passion, no man sees harm.
But these men, vulgar and cruel,
they act as if they transcend the Creator,
though He who created such solitudes
surely must not agree.

We depart for the South
in but a short while. I cannot say
I will be home soon — the Beagle
shelters my bed now, much as
the tropical canopy is secure in the mist.
You cannot know
unless you see these forests
and breathe this air…

With loving passage,


“The poems of Riverfall succeed because they inventively express Buntin’s most compelling visions, convictions and doubts. The poems matter to the reader because they matter so strongly to the poet.”
— Shenandoah

“From the epistolary vision of Charles Darwin writing his sister from on board The Beagle as he tours the Galapagos Islands to the William Carlos Williams tribute of ‘Great American Chicken,’ Riverfall overflows with rich language and mythical imagery. Pick it up, and be prepared to be swept away.”
— Tucson Weekly