Rivers and What They Carry – Part One – River Poems and River Poem Sequences by Natalie Diaz and Catherine Owen


Hispanic and Indigenous American poet Natalie Diaz

Running the Rivers with N and C
  — For Natalie Diaz and Catherine Owen

How to write the unruly, the unsettled,
words forever water, slipping past always
and never, too quick for grief, too slow
for regret, but you carry them, carry them,
anyway. The beauty, beauty, carries them.

Richard Osler, May 17th, 2020

Talk about letting the river take you. Take you. Take you. Two new books of poetry. Two epic elegiac river poem sequences in both written by two accomplished women writers far apart on their respective sides of the 48th parallel.

On the American side, the indigenous and Hispanic American poet, Natalie Diaz and her sequence: The First water is the Body from her new book Post Colonial Love Poem which I have featured in two previous posts. And on my side of the border the Canadian poet Catherine Owen and her sequence The River System in her book Riven. And in Owen’s case it is not just a sequence based on a river but her whole book. I feature Diaz and her poem sequence in this first post and Owen and her poems in part two.

It is not easy to be taken by a river. Rivers have a fierce beauty. You court danger as you enter and live in them. The river poems in these two books ache with beauty but carry danger, too. The flood forces in both of them. The grief and the beauty rushing through. And if you know the flood force of a river you will know that exhilaration, that fear in these poems. I know these far too well. The taste of them.

I have been taken by the Missinaibi, west of North Bay, Ontario thrown over, dumped and survived. And by the Nile in Uganda, grade five rapids and worse, and sucked, way, way under and kept there. Kept there long enough I began to drown or so it seemed. Then it threw me back. Then took me down again. Then let me go and rushed me far downstream.

Coming back up from my underwater travels in these two books I feel the same heart-weary ebb in my blood. The overwhelm from the sheer force of the poems. The grief, the wisdom there. When I think of these two collections I feel a heart’s thirst for love and reconciliation with this earth, its losses and our countless other losses. And I hear this extraordinary line by Diaz: Unsoothable thirst is one kind of haunting. These women, their words, haunt me.

For Diaz her grief is plural and individual. A river, the Colorado that is her people, is her. It’s degradation its endangered status. That loss. Oh how she brings it alive. The overwhelming fear of its loss, our loss. But also its vital beauty. Even now.

And Owen, her river the mighty Fraser emptying into its estuary in Vancouver. Its environmental degradations but even more. This is a river she lived beside, that accompanied her, held her and her soul-riven grief, after the death, through drug addiction, of her beloved spouse, Chris Matzigkeit (1981-2010). How this river is a not a metaphor as Diaz says but, of course, is metaphor as well. Carries with it her memories of Chris.

This is not Owen’s first outpouring of grief over Chris though this one feels softer, Her first book focused on Chris, Designated Mourner, remains one of the finest collections of poetry I have read anywhere. For my previous blog post on Owen and Designated Mourner please click here.

And here, I now see that both these women and so many of their poems carry another similarity. The devastation of drug addiction in a beloved. For Owen, Chris, and for Diaz, her brother. I can say that some of the most powerful poems I have read on addiction and its impact have been written by these two women.

Diaz’s long poem is too long to include in its entirety so I have taken the liberty of including excerpted sections of it. The sections are not numbered in her book but I have done so so you get a better sense of  how much is missing. But I do hope I have captured the essence of what Diaz has written in this extraordinary sequence.

Diaz does something so valuable in this poem. But she does it not because of poetic artifice but because the river is body and blood of her and her people. She personalizes it. And the grief that washed through me as I read about a river as a person inhabiting this earth. As I heard again the horrifying words of a developer years ago as he called a special piece of land on Bowen Island, B.C. just rock, dirt and trees.

Oh, how much Diaz’s poem reminds me how much we are of this earth and it is of us. How, if we saw this earth as Diaz does we would treat it so differently. Not with disregard but with reverance. Tie yourself in. You are in for a ride. If you fall in don’t worry the shore is close by.

from The First Water is the Body
[A Poem in 18 Parts]

The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States-
also, it is a part of my body.

I carry a river. It is who I am.’Aha Makov. This is not metaphor.

When a Mojave says, Inyech “Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying our name.
we are telling a story of our existence. The river runs through the middle
of my body.

So far, I have said the word river in every stanza. I don’t want  to waste water.
I must preserve the river in my body.

In future stanzas, I will try and be more conservative.


This not a juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things
they are more than close together or side by side. They are the same—
body, being, energy, prayer, current, motion medicine.

The body is beyond six senses. It is sensual. An ecstatic state of energy, always on the verge of praying, or entering any river of movement.

Energy is a moving river moving my moving body.


In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same. the words are separated
only by the letters ‘ii and ‘a:’iimat for the body, ‘amat for land. In conversation,
we often use a shortened form for each: mat-. Unless you know the context
of a conversation, you might not know which has been injured, which is remem-
bering, which is alive, which was dreamed, which needs care. You might
not know we mean both.

If I say, My river is disappearing, do I also mean, My people are disappearing?


A river is a body of water. It has a foor, a elbow, a mouth. It runs. It lies in
a bed. It can make you good. It has a head. It remembers everything.


If i was created to hold the Colorado River, to carry its rushing inside me,
if the very shape of my throat, my thighs is for wetness, how can I say
who I am if the river is gone?

What does ‘Aha Makav mean if the river is emptied to the skeleton of its
fish and the miniature sand dunes of its dry silten beds?

If the river is a ghost, am I?

Unsoothable thirst is one kind of haunting.


We think of our bodies as being all that we are: I am my body. This thinking
helps us disrerspect water, air, land, one another. But water is not external
from our body, our self.

My Elder says, Cut off your ear, and you will live. Cut off your hand you
will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our water, we will not live
more than a week.

The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not part of our body but
our body. What we do to one—to the body, to the water—we do to the other.


Toni Morrison writes, All water has perfect memory and is forever trying
to get back where it was. back to the body of earth, of flesh, back to the
mouth, the throat, back to the womb, back to the heart, to its blood, back
to our grief,  back, back, back.

Will we remember from where we’ve come? The water.

And once remembered, will we return to that first water, and in doing so
return to ourselves, to each other?

Do you think the water will forget what we have done, what we continue to do?

Natalie Diaz from Post Colonial Love Poem, Graywolf Press, 2000


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