Death by Water

Simmons Buntin's 'Riverfall' drowns the reader in aquatic imagery--in a good way

Elemental poetry. Nature poetry. Water poetry. Whatever you want to call it, Simmons Buntin wants to make sure you don't finish his debut, Riverfall, feeling the slightest bit thirsty. Or dry.

In fact, Buntin adopts the form of H2O in every conceivable respect--body, soul and mind. Opening poem "A Body of Water" begins:

Look, I said,
my mind is like a riverfall:
it crashes over boulders,
by smoothing silt,
ecstatic in the swirling
rhythm of itself.

It's not the safest approach, singing an epic song of oneself right off the bat. It requires dodging a minefield of clichés and invites unfair comparisons to Walt Whitman. But Buntin is smart enough to avoid channeling nature's vast power and instead celebrates his vulnerability, his silence in the face of "the constant call / of lunar pull." In the end, he is as susceptible to the moon as any body of water, hence the poem's title.

Riverfall isn't just about experiencing nature; it's also about the literary and aesthetic pleasures nature inspires. In "The Best Time for Reading Poetry," the speaker bonds with the environment on board--of all places--a jet plane. After dining on airline peanuts and reading an Audubon essay, his "mind is left meandering like a stream / in Hemingway's Michigan." He thinks about bat sonar and cricket cacophony before drifting into the poetry of Mary Oliver and A.R. Ammons. With playful irony, Buntin observes that his flight of fancy only ends when "the plane touches solid ground."

I am also glad to see my old stomping grounds appear in poems like "Ghost Stories in the Swamp" and "Great White Heron," which conjure the darkly stunning atmosphere of North Florida. Like fellow bird-obsessed bard Don Stap, Buntin has a knack for capturing the weird beauty of winged creatures like the egret. Indeed, the egret is Buntin's avatar,

... because he stands still as the moon, and as white; because the green-striped cichlids know certain fear
upon the rush of that golden spear;
because his darker cousin still waits patiently at the frayed
end of a reedy pond;
and because he will sail the cracked back of crocodile;
and because there is no love lost in his piercing stare; and because he is egret, remaining noble in the poorest of swamps;
and because she is egress, the exit he deserves.

Of course, there is little in Riverfall to remind us of nature's dangerous side. This is a collection of water poetry devoid of the hurricanes and tsunamis that have destroyed entire cities and cost so many lives. That's OK. As the editor of A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Buntin has a responsibility to promote the beneficial aspects of the natural world. On the other hand, maybe he's been spending too much time in the dry weather of Tucson to remember what it's like to run for your life from a hurricane. (Not that I ever did during 30 years of living in Florida.)

The only uncertain moment in Riverfall takes place at the end of the list poem "Thieving," in which the speaker credits all of God's foliage and fauna with various traits. For example: "From the mole vigilance." But when the poem ends with the line "From the human theft," I nod my head in agreement, but not in astonishment. After all, the final statement is a realization most sensitive readers of verse came to early on. Ultimately, the poem fails to transport me.

Still, putting aside this quibble, Buntin offers the reader plenty of opportunities to re-imagine and reflect on nature in new and different ways.

From the epistolary vision of Charles Darwin writing his sister from on board The Beagle as he tours the Galapagos Islands to the William Carlos Williams tribute of "Great American Chicken," Riverfall overflows with rich language and mythical imagery. Pick it up, and be prepared to be swept away.

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