Paulann Petersen, Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita, has six full-length books of poetry, most recently Understory, from Lost Horse Press. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, Calyx, and the Internet’s Poetry Daily. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she received the 2006 Holbrook Award from Oregon Literary Arts. In 2013 she was Willamette Writers’ Distinguished Northwest Writer. The Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds chose a poem from her book The Voluptuary as the lyric for a new choral composition that’s now part of the repertoire of the Choir at Trinity College Cambridge.
On This Side of the River
--for Kyoko Nakai
Heading away from your funeral,
in the car I hear the kind of talk you'd expect—
memories of you, the dead-end questions
begun with There isn't really any answer,
but why, why? and I'm quiet,
thinking of your face leaning
into that magnolia bloom I'd brought
to my classroom, your beauty
a match for the sharply perfumed
cream of its petals.
Easy curves, and now
a straightaway where the little highway takes
its course a bit uphill of the river.
On the long stretch between bridges,
nothing crosses the river for miles
I’m mostly silent, and more so
when I look out my window at a mown field
stretching up from the river’s bank
to meet the shoulder of this busy road.
I quicken, staring. A lone heron
stands in the grass. Neck stretched and straight,
head exactly still, near enough to eye me—
if it cared to. Close enough it's a shock to me
who's never seen anything
in these shorn fields but smears
Heron. This close
to streaming traffic, on this particular day.
The same Great Blue Heron who—
in oldest stories making their way,
through time, toward me—carries the dead
onto a farther shore, safely from this side
to the next. A psychopomp, a soul-guide
is here, beside this highway
I'll travel tomorrow, then time after
time after. Each day, I’ll strain
for another glimpse, as I drive
the very route taking me away
from you now, speeding me
to a place of another crossing.
Reprinted with permission on page 61 in the 2017 Honoring Our Rivers. An earlier version of "On This Side of the River" appeared in Clackamas Literary Review.