Published on Academy of American Poets (

River to River

          After Jen Bervin / After Quan Barry

River spidering across the wall, sailing 
through the air. River flashing with silver 
sequins fastened to sunbeams. River always 
in pieces, a torn ribbon streaming everywhere.
River carving out a canyon through the years, 
seen from a sudden grassy overlook, 
an old bridge, a new shoreline, endlessly
crossing and recrossing our lives. River 
this winter with sixteen eagles alert 
and searching. River unfrozen and pooling 
around the ankles of trees in springtime, 
daring us closer. River asleep inside 
the black night like a spent lover, 
dreaming of being a chandelier of rain, 
first velvet wet drops on bare skin. Go, 
go on. Conveyor belt of clouds, destroyer 
and preserver of towns, longest breath 
of the earth, tell us what floating means 
to you. Some trees are weeping, river. 
Speak of all you carry and carry off
in river song and river silence. Be horse, 
be ferry, carry us from now to next to. 
River, I’m done with fading shadows. 
Give me daylight broken and scattered
across your fluid transparent face, 
come meet me with the moon and the stars 
running and tumbling along your sides. 
River swinging open like a gate to the sea,
time’s no calendar of months, you say,
but water in the aftermath of light.  
Your drifting cargo tells us everything 
arrives from far away and long ago 
and ends in the body, boat of heartache 
and ecstasy we pilot, in quest of passage also. 
River we call Mississippi or Mekong, 
sing us forth to nowhere but here, 
with your perfect memory be our flood.


Copyright © 2019 by Hai-Dang Phan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 3, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“This poem emerged from the serendipitous confluence of numerous sites and sightings, including Jen Bervin’s luminous exhibition ‘River’ at the Des Moines Art Center, a sentence by Toni Morrison (“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was”), a poem by Quan Barry (‘Black cricket in the doorway, on the ceiling, in’), weekly drives across the Mississippi, almost daily walks down to the Iowa River, and numerous rivers I’ve known growing up in the Midwest. Invoking and apostrophizing these rivers one and many, the poem became a deluge. Writing ‘River to River’ I was reminded of how poetry exceeds, overflows, and reroutes the ordinary course of language, evolving new forms, new ways in and through the world. At the same time it feels like an ancient way home.” 
Hai-Dang Phan


Hai-Dang Phan

Hai-Dang Phan is the author of Reenactments: Poems and Translations (Sarabande Books, 2018).

Date Published: 2019-09-03

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