the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night

Big City, Little

Fall 2013 / Spring 2014



Big City, Lit
Nicholas Johnson


Brooklyn Bridge

  Photo:  George Kunze

It's more than a long, dark road.  You're in your car, with everything you need in the glove box, back seat, trunk.  You've got your smoke, there's the fog, and some rain, and more fog, and thoughts of searchlights.

Maybe there's someone beside you—or there will be—for who knows for how long.  A guy thing maybe: a city, a woman, warm coffee, more smokes.

Stations drift in and out in the sing-along tease 'til you've had enough of the night, the absolute black Van Gogh claimed didn't exist.  All the tricks, like in a Dylan song, play by the roadside shoulders.

It's what you want: not exactly lost, not exactly knowing where you are, but full of the importance of being elsewhere, speeding toward.

And so you drive on, grateful for the dashboard, steering wheel in your hands, strings of mileposts, tiny reflectors, what's left of the white lines, rarities the more traveled, rained on.

Smoke, fog, smudge of light on the horizon: The City, allegory-big.  You on the way, bridge-buzzed, highway-wired, everything within reach, toward the light, the place where "symbol is the thing itself."


Nicholas Johnson is co-founder and editor of the magazine. His chapbook, Degrees of Freedom, is available from Bright Hill Press.


Sheila e. Black

Re-Mix: To My Brothers and Sisters Living in the West

My city is a liquid blue steel-barreled gun
a traveling sanctuary, a .457 Magnum of champagne
an oily ball bearing rattling in a wheel always heading west.
Young Man, Young Woman, it says, slice through the sacred
especially if you're packin'. Score the blemishes on the wooden desk
deeply until they burn brighter than the grain. Nothin' like a solid reminder
of American craftsmanship in its more than two hundred year old existence.

Half a life-time away, the tenuous beginnings I always wanted,
served as solid reminders of youth, aging, and death,
all present in each mahogany mark.
Then, the only direction I heard was, Go Forward!
I remembered the time spent at my brother's ranch,
the long days exploring the dusty, rugged terrain, where arrowheads
and Paleozoic rocks filled our pockets and cuffs as if they crawled in there
without our consent. Mesquite and cactus, too, clung to our clothes
and tumbleweed bunched up of its own volition,
carelessly blown there by the wind and the dust.

The dominant horizons came and went, landmarks for the changing emotional weather.
I used to screw my eyes shut to avoid the crawling sensations I felt on my skin every night
under the radiant stars, grateful that their brilliance was untainted by artificial city lights.
Each element glowed inside of me for a brief time,
a time of love and hate and misunderstanding.

And my city was a city of guns and ammo,
guns and ammo that never ran out.
If you go to any campground in West Texas,
you will find empty shells, and arrowheads;
sometimes, you find blunt-nosed bullets
slammed into rocky canyon walls,
streaked or cracked, but man-made nevertheless.

By degrees, these tortuous nights, raw- nippled and burned in our memories forever,
were like something shuffled over our hearts from the inside out with sandpaper.
This was a city where the path, handed down from ancient sun-burnt explorers,
always blossomed into vast electric fields—epic future journeys—
and needed every gun in the place.


Stephen Massimilla

To a Petal South of This Coast

Where I falter at the gate, dark blaze of daisies.
Early moon heads out,
and box kite tails are whipping like streptobaccilli.
Asterisms mimicked in slow-folding inlet,
rippled by copper fish tugging
at twines. They crumble at a slant under
lunar-tinted bones: tombstones like baby teeth easing
toward land.

You were its ocean. Moth lamps lodged
in backyard ginkos silver toolshed roofs. Nests
of the poorwill are moored to fossilized roots. Unlike cradles
woven for April, these offer
empty comfort, lightly cupping their burden of shade.
Lichens grip the flagstones. Afraid to re-enter through the flesh
where love drove here down dirt roads through showers of gravid blossoms,
you should remember me—I'm telling you this much.


Kate Irving

When Sleep Won't Come

Rowing out this far means
emptying the future of everything
but this shore, those trees.
A small leak springs the boat, the oars
slip unnoticed from their locks,
the drift is quiet,
slow. I could drown alone
but have taken you down with me.
The lake is indifferent —
tangled milfoil, reeds waving
lost lines, lost hooks, skeleton kittens,
rusted cars, skiffs, springs,
rings and trinkets, stones and their secrets
cached by gravity.
From above,
the lake is no bigger than a thimble,
and the boat, floating in the pale,
passes for a signal sent back in time
like starlight.


Among the Named

I've come to believe a man who reckons by rain and smoke —
not just rain but the reason for rain,
and not merely smoke but how it blinds us.
He speaks with the silence of stones, the rivers that travel them.
I believe him fool enough to squander his time listening
to the cricket in a barren field, the new moon linger.
They speak as membrane allows breath to pass
through a lung or blood the heart
with replenishing oxygen — to renew, distinguish
between what's lost in the wound and what reclamation heals.
I count myself lucky among those named,
not explained away or bargained with like death or the fear of death —
they, too, have a place in the reckoning.


Karl D. Gluck

Pardon Our Dust

Wax has spilt everywhere,
Hardened and unremovable,
That spot, there up front—
I have been meditating on it
For ten years.
Ashes from incense show up in places
You would never imagine.
The rice thrown in the air,
As an offering to the lamas
Gets vacuumed up
Each time they leave,
Yet move the shrine and there,
In the back, a whole handful.
Closets are filled with things
Too sacred for the trash can.
They should be burnt. It seems
The landlord would not take kindly
To a bonfire by the shrine in the living room.

We have spent so much time meditating,
Chanting, contemplating the possible
Dimensions of enlightenment.
At least one thing has become clear:
This world of form we live in is nothing
But trouble.

The wax and ashes on the floor,
The rice from offerings,
The things that pile up all around
While we search for formlessness—
All the things we take to be holy
Only create difficulties—
With the landlord, the neighbors,
The vacuum cleaner—
We beg forgiveness of man and machine
Pardon our dust…wax…ashes…flames—
Our minds are under construction.
The protectors seep out of the walls,
The paintings, the statues
And silently begin to mend the hole
We tear in the fabric of the universe
As we squirm, trying to break free
Of the only world that will have us.


Patrick Henry

Song on Awaking

They sang in the voice of the open road or the sea,
That carried the sense of fresh ways ahead
Through new journeys, or work made more free
From powers ruling, we'd serve, strive and die how they said.

Urges from waves, from wind in the sails, in the trees;
Scaled up their tones, rising to a march,
Not to war or armed force, but in firm steps towards,
Fair promise of peace, as meant by the rainbow's arch.

From wide lands and seas, new words fused to tunes,
Spelt out works, both classic or popular,
To speak on hard tasks set in these strict times,
To beat a call which anthems can answer no more.

Masses, once meaning grim service for the dead,
Or wide crowds cowed by word of command;
Strike voices to protest through shades of red,
Of green, for caring. Blues in the night hit the land.

Out of dim office, writers take up sharp lines
Songs smiths use, welding a mood to the cause.
Chants to obey switched to stormed sea-change sounds:
"Sea Drift", "Hard Travelling", "Hard Rain Falling": tough works now arose.

          ("Sea Drift," a Delius suite from poems by Walt Whitman)


Rebecca Lucente

The Best Cigarette
          for Billy Collins

There are many that I miss
Having flicked my last one over a balcony
One dark night, a firefly disappearing in the trees.
The obvious ones, of course;
After an evening joint, the double indulgence
As one fades to ash, two light up
And lean back, the end of a long
At the end of a greasy breakfast
The day waiting to begin
Blue-grey haze curling and dancing from the ashtray
Or in a hot tub, resting an elbow on the edge
Holding the damp filter until it burns out.
It's a strange dichotomy, these moments
of flame and relief.
The most pure memories are mornings
When the next line keeps appearing
Through the tangle onto my computer screen,
Ingrid Michaelson in the background
and endless Miami sun.
I would grab for the pack without looking
Away, lighting up as I read my own
Words as if they were a letter
To myself, written
Long ago.
And it would be the exhale of breath
As I lean back in the chair.
Then I would be my own sunshine
All bright energy as I returned to work
My thoughts like beams of light
All the lines that brought me here
came from somewhere
That was the best cigarette.
Smiling at the monitor.
Every ounce of light within
Shining on these words.

Jared Smith

Having Almost Forgotten Why I Was Here

I stand flat against window glass in Manhattan,
pressing my palm against the cold winter of evening.
The lights are out. The bellman rings and slips an envelope
under the door. The plastic in my pocket is fulfilled.
The closet is empty now, but for an unused bathrobe.
Shampoo bottles oddly bright with infused light by the bath.
My forehead leaves a smudge of DNA against the night,
and as moments pass I push my hips too against the glass.
With a luck of sorts I will fall into what surrounds me now
and my past will meet me in the eyes of a coyote pausing
on the moonlit night ice of Central Park with no entity.


Kristen Spears

City to a Small Person

Trees in the dark park are still visible
outlined by industrial port lights in 'Jersey
and moon dappled waves on the Hudson.

Some days the buildings feel homey
and of the correct proportion
with a bright sky beyond the gray.
But, during the off moments
of more cloudy times
buildings have no end,
there is no sky
and this metropolis cages.

Steel and alloy needles press into fog,
press into clouds and draw dew drops,
rain drops, snow to street level.

Delicate this all feels,
a piece of re-bar bent and it may all implode,
a window shattered and this dream collapsed.
Perhaps, though, this is just my fragile mind
and soft body cocooned in this glassy place.

Lori Desrosiers


My river, you run brimming
with barges tugboats, trout.
Flanked by Catskills and Palisades,
your source is Lake Tear of the Clouds,
Adirondack mountain stream.
Your Mohican name is Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk.

Trout breech into ever
widening circles. Heron and egret
wade in the shallows, eagerly fishing.
At sunset, bats rush from shoreline caves
catching mosquitoes in mid-air.

Ancient oak trees lean,
gesticulating toward the opposite bank,
their roots touching the shallows.
The shadows of great bridges,
George Washington, Tappan Zee,
ripple your waves on a windy day.


Robert Klein Engler

The Invitation

Men of God tell us the great pain of Hell
is the pain of separation. Sublunary lovers
know this already, or something like it
in the faint colors of everyday longing.

This morning the sun is quarterway towards
noon and pushes ahead a cerulean blue
sky with a hint of autumn in the air among
turning leaves. The color of longing is rust.

We hear when Jesus walked in Bethlehem
some had their longing cured. Others
dragged out Scripture to argue over words.
The color of longing is rust and blood.

Now, the field corn is stripped and ground.
Now, the water blushes into wine.
The saints take up their cross. It grows cold.
The colors are rust and blood and gold.