No Shape Bends the River So Long, winner of the 2013 New Measure Poetry Prize, is the work of two poets, Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni, who have joined forces to co-create a collection of poems deriving their strength and vitality from America’s heartland.
Divided into five sections, much of No Shape Bends the River So Long reads like a plea for permanence and grace, both of which are continually threatened by the forces of a fierce and unremitting nature. In “[Maybe just as clouds make their own streets]” Berlin and Marzoni write,
Or when cloud
cover in the valley, that common low
status deck of sky, mistaken, returns
May to winter & the states hang temporarily
closed & board up again as if bearing down
isn’t just storm but an end we’ve been
holding off all these years with something
not unlike prayer. (lines 12-19)
The presence of impending havoc and loss rising time and again to the surface in these poems is mirrored in the landscape and in the lives of its human witnesses, where grief and sorrow are often close at hand, as in “[If we have to we can live in much smaller rooms, drift banked]”:
pools in our joints in waiting rooms, which on this map sit still
in a cross-hatch of gusts of broken people & their filling in
the anxious, past blame a storm not yet
here, it’s only rain, the worst to come or behind us
if the news is right, & isn’t it
always one way or another, breaking or the retrospective,
another year in review. . . . (lines 7-14)
There are moments in No Shape Bends the River So Long, few and far between though they may be, when the light of transcendence breaks through somewhat consolingly as it does in “[That your August sky somehow suddenly]”:
held above us a light we’d nearly forgotten
—time moving as it does, all at once & not
at all—as if to say Don’t worry, I’ve got this
covered. (lines 1-5)
If all is never exactly well, however, there is at least a suggestion here that perspectives are subject to meaningful change, if only fleetingly, and that some measure of solace can be found in the passage of time.
Much of the imagery in No Shape Bends the River So Long concerns itself with loneliness and grief, emotional displacement and regret. If there is a flaw here, it may be in the uniformity of tone the authors adopt throughout. These poems seem to commemorate an endless succession of hard fights in a world where names are taken and fate plays favorites. In [Wake to what we long ago learned to call]” they speak of shelter, but as a byproduct of “perpetual lesson”:
So, the light changed. So, sometimes comes
back to us mumbled dreamlike & slow to wake,
sometimes suffered nearly translucent. So,
windward, we shelter into perpetual lesson.
Time-worn we named it, or stationary
front or shearline, another ordinary
day passing through, nearly
invisible from the ground. (lines 28-35)
As the authors mention in the “Tributaries and Notes” section, their work has its source in “the landscape of the Mississippi River Valley & its tumult—the droughts & floods of several seasons” (95). Although few, if any, of these poems can be said to focus on an individual, there is nonetheless a strong sense that real Midwesterners hover in the background, watching the horizon and waiting for whatever will surely come sooner or later. This is movingly expressed in “[So the day will become a small boat]”:
we know we’ll have to bail. No matter
& never mind what’s left or left
to say. There’s water & there’s wind
to cut it off, carry it off
& any way. &, So, when even the birds—.
When every road—.
When the hour
lengthened by waiting becomes
space, a room of nothing much happens
swells & then the wave—. Back
& back again we turn: the time, each once
-dear phrase, every shift of light. (lines 1-13)
Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni have given us an unflinching and at times despairing view of the American heartland, where emotional wellbeing and the forces of nature meet and do battle year round. If there is such a thing as permanence or grace, they seem to be saying, it will be for the survivors to find.