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Short poem

Simon Joseph Ortiz (1941-)

Burning River

              1I will tell my son over and over again,
              2"Do not let the rivers burn."
              3Mountains must stand
              4until winds and rains come,
              5and they -- and only they --
              6will cause them to sink
              7back into the center
              8of that universal river
              9which is their's
            10and their children's,
            11Magpie, Bear, and Coyote too.

            12I will tell him over and over
            13and over again.

            14Joan, my hostess, was telling me about the river as she drove me from Kent State to the airport. "This is the only river in America that ever burned." The countryside is smalltown industrial America, settled with small erecto-set plants for the making of small parts, things to package things in, things to take things apart with. I am appalled and try to smother the apprehension that makes me think that soon we shall suffer many burning rivers.

            15We wait at the crossing.

            16The train shudders
            17with some evil disease.
            18The disease kills
            19even as it dies.
            20And the disease will be
            21at its furious work
            22until its frantic energy
            23will become its burning death.

            24And then the weakened spirit
            25will turn to the center
            26and become the cooled wind
            27and become the cooled rain
            28and wash the last vestige
            29of waste from our bones,
            30from our charred ligaments
            31and wash them back

            32to the River,
            33the River,
            34the River,
            35four times the River.


2] The Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio caught fire in a spectacular way on June 22, 1969, just southeast of downtown Cleveland. This well-publicized disaster led to the Clean Water Act in 1972. Randy Newman's "There's a Red Moon Rising" -- celebrated in the film Major League (1989) about the Cleaveland Indians baseball team -- contains the memorable chorus, "Burn on, big river, burn on."

14] Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.

Online text copyright © 2004, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Ortiz, Simon J. Woven Stone. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992: 198-99.
Publication date note: Ortiz, Simon J. A Good Journey. Tucson: Sun Tracks and The University of Arizona Press, 1977: 63-4.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2004
Recent editing: 1:2004/6/30*1:2004/6/30

Form: free verse with prose

Other poems by Simon Joseph Ortiz