Still, Rivers

by Monica Berlin

Another late summer early quiet blue-skied morning, my son next to me where I’d fallen asleep watching news, says, The TV’s on the wrong chan-nel. Says, It’s all weather. Not half awake I ask, Is New York still there? to hear him say, It keeps raining but I think so. We stare at the screen, trying to figure out what we’re looking at, what’s left. Later as the eastern seaboard waist-deep powers up generators, peels tape from windows, turns at last to look down at what’s rising toward the sky, we cross twice the Mississippi, still swollen, though there’s been no rain to speak of in months. On the bridge that carries us over that fierce Old Man, I’m thinking of the Hudson, how a month ago we leaned together in a small boat and he said, The water looks like it’s made of paper. If only paper now, I think, then remember all the falling sheets in that other September in that same New York, how it’s one of the things we collectively saw: the blizzard of paper, its resilience an imprint.

How is it that we can say drought and flood on the same day in this same country and mean both? Or that even now the river’s so high and the ground’s choking and on the coast with nowhere for it to go. Practice all those words again and again and you’ll continue to come up absent with any worthwhile logic. He asks, Is it like that book about the olden days? That flood? —the book brought home from the school library I misheard him call Noah’s Ark until I looked, realized though the flood was biblical, it wasn’t that story, but the epic waters of ’27. And when he asks if it was fiction, I answer No, Baby, it’s true. The flood was real. Was terrible. The story, nonfiction, like they all are. He stops, thinking it over, says, There’s always too much. Or not enough. And when I nod he asks, How come we don’t all always drowned all the time? I almost say, We do. One way or another, we just keep going under.

Instead, I wonder how the world looks to him on any given day, different from the day before: the turbulent sense of scale, the always roiling perspective, the proportions unstable, the front porch steps leading to a lake where a house once stood, the highways’ gaping fissures, the missing miles, those rivers made of paper, or a boy—his age—carrying a small, white cat through streets now made of water, through streets now tributaries all their own.

In the States, other places have disappeared in water: Birmingham, Kentucky; the original location of Boonton, New Jersey, though the town was moved; Kennett, California; Kane, Wyoming; Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, Massachusetts; Pattenville, New Hampshire; Preston, Texas; Pueblo Grande de Nevada near Overton, Nevada; Roanoke Colony; Monticello, California. All man-made, these erasures. Napoleon, Arkansas was a genuine, naturally occurring flooding over— high water in 1868 and then again in 1874 submerged the entire town. When Old Man is running shallow, the ghosted Napoleon imprints the river’s sandbars. By which we mean to say to people whose once-lives submerge, Conflation occurs in fissures of physical space. There are circumstances to which no one plan is especially well suited. Increasingly, however, the lives of people and things are intersecting in ways that remain inconceivable. Even that lacks comfort. Even that can’t undo the cruelty to land and its people.

Bayou Meto. Little Maumelle. Maumelle. Fourche La Fave. South Fourche La Fave. Cadron Creek. Point Remove Creek. Petit Jean River. Illinois Bayou. Big Piney Creek. Mulberry River. Poteau River. James Fork. Lee Creek. Illinois River. Flint Creek. Sager Creek. Neosho River. Elk River. Big Sugar Creek. Little Sugar Creek. Tanyard Creek.

When the water levels in Kentucky Lake are low, remains of foundations and streets of Birmingham are often visible, especially at Birmingham Point. In 1938, The Tennessee Valley Authority flooded the town to make a lake. Some residents sold their houses and left. Some residents moved their houses. Some moved their houses twice, again when Barkley Lake was impounded in 1966 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But not all houses or structures were moved. That reservoir—carried inside the remaining buildings, filling each house to the roof, beyond rooflines, above the trees—created the largest manmade lake in the eastern United States. Backing up the Tennessee River for 184 miles, stretching south across the western tip of Kentucky and nearly the width of Tennessee, it covers over 160,000 acres. The TVA says it helps keep floods on the lower Ohio and Mississippi at bay. At bay.

So we reconcile one loss for another: bare trees against the skyline make their own kind of sea, those cities a kind of shipwrecking, settling into silt into the silt below; how we can’t tell in what way the objects in any room change the light, our mood, other objects in the same space. How any one thing interacts with every other one thing. Now, add water pouring through the small windows of the small rooms where we live. All this is familiar enough. Think about here: the open landscape, the high-spread sky, the myriad fields, the huge night, the oceanless shore, the wide prairies. How we, land-bred, no longer seafaring, think, The rounds of backwater are traditional places. Think, The sky has been overcast since noon.

To eliminate meandering of the Missouri, to limit its sinuosity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers heavily channelized Old Muddy, quieting its curves, its natural bends, every repetitious pattern of waveform. There is not yet full consistency of scientific terminology used to describe water-courses. Science, like language, is a search for simplicity. For order. In some schemes, “meandering” applies only to rivers with exaggerated circular loops or secondary meanders; that is, meanders on meanders. If we’re going to keep destroying it, we should learn to speak with precision. Agree on words we’ll use to mourn our inability to preserve.

Saline Branch. Saline River. Salt Creek of the Des Plaines. Salt Creek of Little Wabash. Salt Creek of the Sangamon. Salt Fork Vermillion. Shoal Creek. Skillet Fork. Spoon River. Sugar Creek. Sugar River. Thorn Creek. Vermillion. Vermillion. Wabash. Wood. Yellow Creek.

It’s the same old story: our want to save what we think it means to us rather than what it means. Our want to stop rivers from doing what rivers do: meander, flood, cut across land to form a new bed. Where the river seems to hold up the sky, that vanishing point, we find another tributary, another one valley reaching out to the sea. But damming against horizon line where elements of a surface articulate motion—by walking on the floor, one ritually redefines one’s movement through the world—sputters silent the rivers.

On the last day of April 2011, towns all along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers become water, turn into water climbing our basement stairs two at a time. In Cairo, Illinois, near the Missouri border, remarking on the de-cision of the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to uphold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to breach the levee at Birds Point, if necessary, Mayor Judson Childs said, “I’ve been saying all along that we can’t take land over lives.”

Little Calumet. Little Embarras. Little Mackinaw. Little Marys. Little Menominee. Little Muddy. Little Vermillion. Little Wabash.

Colonel Vernie Reichling, the Corps commander of the Memphis District and assistant to General Walsh for the northern portion of the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, tries honesty with reporters. “We’re listening to the river,” he said.

All of this will happen and none of it will. In April, snow still clung to our coats. We didn’t meet at a tavern in Shallow Water, or in Garden City. We didn’t cross what they sometimes call Lower & Middle Missis-sippi-Missouri-Jefferson-Beaverhead-Red Rock-Hellroaring Creek River. Nothing cantilevered through. Nothing trussed. Never made it to Victory or Thebes, to Commerce, to Osceola or Reverie. We stared at our atlases and went nowhere. We panned out to imagine hearing the sky say aloud, to no one in particular, though we’d be the only ones within range, Finally the stern shelter.

When General Walsh orders the levee breached, “two barges loaded with 265 tons of explosives will make a 30-mile journey upriver from their current mooring in Hickman, Kentucky.” General Walsh admits that during his career in the Corps he has faced more difficult challenges. As commander for the Corps’ Gulf Region Division in Baghdad, Iraq, he oversaw construction of buildings in the villages where “we were always in control of the city.” When Walsh orders the levee breached, “The gap created by the controlled explosion on the west bank of the Mississippi sent water rushing at more than four million gallons per second into a ba-sin bordered several miles to the west by a setback levee and encompassing some 200 square miles of farmland” in a seething gut between soaring and dizzy banks with a glare of light above them. He keeps reminding us “the floodway is, in essence, a gigantic relief valve.”

Apple River. Boneyard Creek. Cache River. Cypress Creek. Embarras River. The Fox. The Green. Bubbly Creek. Beaucoup Creek. Henderson Creek. Elm River. Kaskaskia River. The Kishwaukee. The Leaf. Lick Creek. Lusk Creek. Middle Fork Vermillion. North Fork Embarras. Pecatonica River. Pine Creek. Plum River. Rock Creek. Rock River. Rush Creek.

Bear with me here because distraction is sometimes productive. The slow-est route between two points become slower. Disorder sometimes a way to reorder.

I remember rooms, these geometric places where we live and live on, where we only sometimes live. I remember how in our city of sagging porches, their bones casting shadows on all the now empty streets, buildings gutted and caving in, we tried to build what we could and later what we struggled to let go or to take with us. Once upon a time, a carpenter could make a wall curve, a beveled-edged walnut molding curve. How that bend recalls a grace we’ve all but forgotten any of us ever knew.

I remember rooms and when the rooms all but washed away.

Bear Creek. Blue Earth River. Broken Kettle Creek. Canoe Creek. Catfish Creek. The Cedar. The Charion. The Deep. The Des Moines. The English. The Flint. The Floyd. The Grand. The Iowa. Lime Creek. The Little Cedar. The Little Fox. The Little Maquoketa. The Little Ocheyedan. The Little. The Little Rock. The Little Turkey. The Little Wapsipinicon. The Maple. The Middle. Mosquito Creek. The North. The Platte. The Raccoon. The Shell Rock. The Soldier. The South. Squaw Creek. Thunder Creek. The Trout. The Volga. The Weldon. West Fork of the Little Sioux. The Winnebago.

The levee had been breached only one other time, in winter, during the flood of 1937. The river cannot remember its flooding—// I worry you will forget to check / the watermarks in time. Sheriff Keith Moore of Mississippi County, Missouri, said, “It’s going to be a tsunami for Mississippi County…” Missouri officials fear the rushing in could lead to environmental disaster: diesel fuel, propane tanks, pesticides, fertilizer, other toxins, all swept away. About the rising, just north of where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, local Cairo farmer Ed Marshall said: “I just don’t know what’s going to be left after this wall of water washes over this.”

A little less than a year later, a ghost ship from Japan, set adrift amidst the ruin, nears the city of Sitka, Alaska. The U.S. Coast Guard will sink it to the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska. Tsunami, a word my son learns to spell and translate in first grade, Harbor and Wave.

In Missouri, officials explained that although most residents opposed breaching the levee, most also recognized the situation beyond their control. Rolled up and then down again, the skiff now travelling forward now sideways now sternward, sometimes in the water, sometimes riding for yards upon the roofs of houses and trees.... After the breach, ideally, water would return to the Mississippi—onto the wild bosom of the Father of Waters—at the southern end of the basin by way of two additional breaches that the Corps also created, near New Madrid, Missouri. But not before—two stories high inside the brick houses / cars floating past—all that water.

All along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, remnants of lives will float away. It had been raining, and it would rain. All across America that damp, grey spring, basements fill with water, seepage left over from last summer’s wetness, then from the winter of blizzards, and now this pouring down April. Curbed, still and always, carpets mildewing and rolled up to be hauled away. On the last day of the month, in another year of disasters, everything soaked, the fraying and scouring clean of everything waterlogged, logged, put down.

Then the tornadoes. 770 confirmed in the month of April, 327 in May. Among them: Vilonia. Smithville. Shottsville. Fyffe. Rainsville. Sylvania. Hackleburg. Phil Campbell. Hillsboro. Tanner. East Limestone. Harvest/ Toney. Tuscaloosa. Birmingham. Ringgold. Apison. Cordova. Southeast Tennessee. Cullman/Arab. Shoal Creek/Ohatchee. Philadelphia. Joplin. El Reno. Piedmont. Guthrie. Also Vesuvius. Also Harbinger.

Detour turns a way to acknowledge how not porous everything is. Despite how soaked through we are—the land is—some things always only remain on the surface, don’t seep.

Nearly eight decades since the blackest Sunday, since the floods of that winter that wiped out whole towns, and more than eight decades since the hundred year flood of 1927, and here in what we’ll call now, days so stark we start to think in these terms: dust bowl, black day, drowned, ghost town. We think of dwell time. Think, Railroad time. Think, Daylight time is a local matter. Think, So tenuous what holds everything together. Think, Meander. Think, Water seeping through. Think, Today the river an ocean. Think, These unseen see-forever plains will wash away, or be blown away. We think to begin naming the rivers, or the floodplains where the houses, now under water, give themselves up to everything.

The Gasconade. The Big Piney. Spring Creek. Rubidoux Creek. Osage Fork. Beaver Creek. The Osage. The Maries. The Niangua. The Little Niangua. Greasy Creek. The Pomme de Terre. The Little Pomme de Terre. The South Grand. Tebo Creek. Big Creek. Weaubleau Creek. Turnback Creek. Clear Creek. The Chariton. The Little Chariton. Honey Creek. Soldier Creek. Soldier River. East Soldier River. Middle Soldier River. Medicine Creek. Lost Child Creek. Mulberry Creek. Dry Creek. Dry Fork Powder River. Salt Creek. Wild Horse Creek. Crazy Woman Creek. The Grindstone. The Fishing. The East Fork Fishing. The Tongue. The Wind. The Little Blue. The Blue.

Summer and I drove from the Headwaters south, far as I could, mostly alongside that Old Man. After the Mississippi’s flooding, the Missouri gave way. I could never stop listening to the news. I could never stop trying to recognize all the ways a river means. So many days spent staring at that water so big, in this country so big, and still I didn’t immediately understand why, in places, the roads seemed so close to the river’s edge. August still saturated. Where curbs once were, sandbags piled up. City after city a basement of water.

The Ash. The Baptism. The Battle. The Birch. The Blueberry. The Bottle. The Burntside. The Cascade. The Clearwater. The Cottonwood. Sleepy Eye Creek. Plum Creek. Crooked Creek. Cross River. Dark River. Dead River. Elbow River. The Two Rivers River. The Little Two River. The Island. Le Sueur River. Little Gooseberry River. Little Hill River. Sand Hill River. Shell Rock River. The Mud. South Fork Root River. South Branch Two Rivers. South Branch Rush River. South Branch Sun-rise. West Branch Floodwood River.

In the book that doesn’t yet exist it will say, I watch your straight back, your cautious shoulders, as you cross the river carrying the river. It will say, Even there, I watch you walk away. It will never say I held my breath, afraid you’d slip, go under, disappear the way others sometimes do in that fierceness we recognize but can’t name. It will not say, The river carried you carrying the river, though we wish it were so, imagine a raft not to cross there at the start—where clear and small, the river turns almost pond, almost stream—but to carry us down all the length’s-way to the mouth, impossible though that would be now. In the book it will say, So, there you hear the river before you see it. So like an ocean that sound. In the book: I dream us back, beside it, in the dark.

Imagine it, not an X at each spot where, having lost that river, we found it again, but a typographical gasp, an O or some marking to represent my hand on your shoulder, my fingers brushing against you or pointing out the window saying, There. Saying, Look. Now, sometimes at night, wide-eyed, I imagine a cartographer designating how what we found there, unutterable, audible, became a way to explain the very things we’ve been turning our bodies over and a way to know this country of ours where people live here, where we sometimes live, sometimes go under, this country that sometimes lives and sometimes goes under. Like yesterday: evacuations begun again, plywood hammered in, the waiting, spray paint cans calling up old songs, those markings calling up another summer, or was it spring? Spring yet, or again, calling up another season of water rising, another named categorical synonym for ruin, for ghosted town, for watermark. Calling up another word that will replace all others, a word that will wash its mouth clean.


Some italicized portions of the text are taken, also sometimes altered, from numerous sources, including: Nancy Eimers’ Oz, Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem], David Pollard’s The Chinese Essay, John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame, Teresa Cader’s History of Hurricanes, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Mary Dudziak’s War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, and Fragile Traditions: Indonesian Art in Jeopardy edited by Paul Michael Taylor.

Thanks to The New York Times, The Associated Press, Reuters, Wikipedia and the good ol’ World Wide Web, in particular, for the passages quoted on the events at Birds Point-New Madrid, for correct spellings of the names of everything, and well, for all its knowledge.

Some of the italicized portions are wholly my own. Some of the italicized portions of the text can be attributed to dear ones. I hope they know who they are.

Monica Berlin’s recent work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cincinnati Review, TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Collaborations with Beth Marzoni have been published in Colorado Review, New Orleans Review, Meridian, DIAGRAM, Vela, TYPO, Better: Culture & Lit, and elsewhere. Their collection of poems, No Shape Bends the River So Long, was awarded the 2013 New Measure Prize by Free Verse Editions and Parlor Press. Berlin is the project director for The Knox Writers’ House digital archives and an associate professor at Knox College where she also serves as associate director of the program in creative writing.