Back When Water Was an Element

by Rob Carney

Back When Water Was an Element,

hydrologists would measure things:
the depth of the rivers,

aridity of soil cores,
the sorrow of glaciers

as they faded,

They had inches, and acre feet,
and flashes of level-headed anger—

Remember when you used to go cliff-jumping?
My advice is don’t

I’m saying, they had numbers,
stacked data.

All I’ve got are buckets down a well,
just some language at the bottom if I’m lucky.

Like maybe I can pull up
another word for zero.

Then some other words, too, a whole sentence,
that sounds a bit like hope.

They held a vote.
I’m the one they elected

to be the Listener and Reservoir and Scribe,
the one who records this.

Say, the green of a hummingbird’s feathers
as it hovers,

and then the shapeshift purple
when it moves.

Say, the sounds of a lake
against a boat dock: like tucking in a child,

or like slosh
whenever wakes come rolling.

“Write it all,” they tell me,
so I fill up the margins.

I can’t be yet another thing
that lets them down,

but the past-tense is everywhere.
How long, for instance,

since a hummingbird’s been spotted?
How long

since we couldn’t just walk across a lake,
the bed of it cracked now, bed of it dust,

dance partner of the wind
if the wind were a cough?

Nobody knows since we don’t count back;
all the seasons mean subtraction already:

no snow in the winter months,
feathering through lamplight;

no rain in the spring months
and cold drops running down your shirt.

“It began with a shiver,” she says,
“like I knew this tulip

was the last one I’d see in my yard.
Not the cold outside—

I had a jacket on—
but that shiver, you know, when you’re surprised?

I kept looking at that flower, that red,
so I wouldn’t forget.”

He tells me: “The wind
is what gets us,

especially at night
with so many trees dead now.

We think we hear the baby crying,
but the baby’s fine.

There’s just no leaves anymore,
no leaves for that sway-sound and rustle.

When the wind cuts through,
it makes a pitch the same as crying.”

Don’t ask me yet
about the animals.

You’re right,
but don’t ask about the animals.

The world was the world, and beautiful
but lonely. Valleys

divided the mountains,
each from each.

The sky had the sun and the moon,
and light connecting them.

The ocean had tides joining in and out
like song, two voices in harmony.

No, only the mountains had to go through life apart,
so the world sent clouds to be an answer.

The clouds brought snow—
a shared blanket through the winter.

And the snow piled deep—
a shared dream.

And in the spring,
as the days warmed,

the mountains woke to find rivers.
And those rivers braided the mountains into one

Back when water was an element,
that story didn’t need telling.

Now, when I do,
I see sadness in some,

or disbelief.
A few of them talk to me—

like they’re filling up a river,

words I’ve been picked to remember
and pass on to you.


Finalist of the 2022 C.P. Cavafy Prize

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