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Riverfall / Simmons B. Buntin


By: Simmons B. Buntin

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From its beginning - "with a body "ecstatic in the swirling/ rhythm of itself" - "to its rhythmic closing - ""the slow echo of stone chipping stone" - "RIVERFALL is a collection of poetry filled with the real and imagined geography within and around us. The first section, A Body of Water, spans the Western hemisphere, from the trickle of a mountain stream to a series of eloquent letters by Charles Darwin to his sister, circa...
ISBN 1 903392 47 0
Pub Date Sunday, May 01, 2005
Cover Image Markus Beaumonte
Page Count 54
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From its beginning - "with a body "ecstatic in the swirling/ rhythm of itself" - "to its rhythmic closing - ""the slow echo of stone chipping stone" - "RIVERFALL is a collection of poetry filled with the real and imagined geography within and around us. The first section, A Body of Water, spans the Western hemisphere, from the trickle of a mountain stream to a series of eloquent letters by Charles Darwin to his sister, circa 1832. On the Orchard's Edge explores the brambly places at the edges of fields and mangrove swamps and startling memories. The book closes with The Last Harvest, a selection of beautiful, mythical, and often haunting reflections on place, and the places we can no longer attain. Altogether, Riverfall possesses you like the archaeologist in "The Bone," where you'll find yourself "flowering/down while my blood runs to the river."

Simmons B. Buntin

Simmons B. Buntin is the American author of one previous book of poems, Riverfall, published by Salmon Poetry in 2005. His award-winning poetry and prose have appeared in numerous North American and European journals and anthologies. He is the founding editor of the acclaimed international journal A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, for which he also writes a regular editorial. He is the recipient of the Colorado Artists Fellowship for Poetry, an Academy of American Poets prize, and grants by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and Tucson Pima Arts Council. He is an avid photographer, website designer, and all-around rabble-rouser who lives with his wife and two daughters in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona. Catch up with him at


I cannot follow the river of her myth.
Perhaps Papago, or Hopi.

In legend, she was born of the sharpest
cactus - "the cholla - "and spread her thin

roots into the desert soil.
She broke the underground river

and blossomed into life. As punishment,
the Great One gave her thickened fur,

and naked pups. Confined
to the desert,

she was weaker than the wolf,
could not hide like the fox,

took heavy heat from the white sun.
She ate the horned toad spitting blood

into her eyes, the gila monster leaking
venom through her veins, and the prickly pear shooting spears

through her tongue.
And she became strong.

I said, I cannot follow the river
of her myth; but I can

follow her sweet desert song
like a stream through the fiery hills.

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Letter No. 1

21 January, 1832

My Dearest Catherine,

Passage to the Cape Verde Islands,
a minor stopover for the Beagle,
but a major one for myself.
Oh, if you could have seen my face -
the color of stitched linen at Downs
(where last I have seen either you or Susan).
How can I explain my misery at that time?
The tormenting waves, the incessant rocking,
always rising and collapsing
as my stomach did the same.
Fitzroy is a fine man,
as he would look in on me while
I lay idle at sick bay;
But Wickham, his first mate,
knew no friendship for me.
My quarters fare little better -
I share the poop cabin,
and have my drawers; the two others
(officers both) have lockers.

16 March, 1832

Finally it is Spring -
it seems as if even these vast seas
know the changes. They are richer,
though I knew well before we reached the mainland
we were there. A single leaf, a barkless twig,
a clod of saturated grass, still living - all signals.
No beauty exists in all the world
such as in these tropical lands.
In all my days of studying,
under Henslow or even Sir Adam Sedgwick,
I was never prepared for the absolute
numbers and grand diversity of life -
of species. I have been able to collect,
though I must have killed
hundreds of insects, small mammals, and birds.
(Do not worry, Catherine, I know
how you love life. These species are too numerous
for my sampling to harm.)

One butterfly must be named for you -
its wings are the majesty's blue blazoned
with scarlet, violet, and even silver.
How much it reminds me of your favorite brooch.
These lands have too many more to describe,
the brilliantly colored parrots, the gay
primates swinging on twisted branches...
Father must accuse me
of lizard-catching now, as well.

Yet in all of this beauty, one thing
remains disturbing. Here
on Bahia, on the Northeastern coast
of Brasil - "chiseled into the delirious
greenness of rainforest -
man holds man captive.
Nothing plays enchanting in blood
mixing with sweat on the whip-cuts
of the negroes. Nothing enchanting
in the deep brown skin
chained with iron coils.
You must see the difference.
I collect a few specimens for knowledge,
for all - it is my passion, no man sees harm.
But these men, vulgar and cruel,
they act as if they transcend the Creator,
though He who created such solitudes
surely must not agree.

We depart for the South
in but a short while. I cannot say
I will be home soon - the Beagle
shelters my bed now, much as
the tropical canopy is secure in the mist.
You cannot know
unless you see these forests
and breathe this air...

With loving passage,
Review by Peter Kline in Shenandoah
(Vol. 56, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2006)

In "The Best Time for Reading Poetry," early in Simmons B. Buntin's first book, Riverfall, the author makes the deft and risky move of identifying his primary poetic forebears: Mary Oliver, James Galvin and A.R. Ammons. The move is risky in that it invites comparison with three formidable poets working in a mode similar to Buntin's, but it succeeds by ingenuously aligning his work with theirs while forestalling any criticism about its derivation. In fact, many of the best poems in Riverftll are those that most audibly echo the voice of another poet. Ammons in particular is a rich vein for Buntin to mine; the bare, existential "I," bereft of history or context, becomes a powerful tool in Buntin's constant interrogation of the engagement between the human and the natural world. Like Ammons, Buntin expresses the Romantic urge for an ecstatic union with nature, while acknowledging that such a vision must necessarily be informed, and perhaps even curtailed, by the exactitudes of science and the cynicism of modern life. The end result is a poetry that never shies away from hard particulars while still managing to affirm the position of human beings in the natural order.

This precarious balance between humans and the natural world is most strikingly addressed in the first poem of the book, "Body of Water." Buntin explores the double-meaning inherent in the title, systematically using simile to compare natural botlies of water with his own embodiments - "mind," "soul" and "breath:"

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

Buntin's simile is important here because it compares human attributes with natural ones while resisting the outright equivalence of metaphor; in asserting that his mind is "like a riverfall," the speaker also forcefully emphasizes that his mind and the riverfall are fundamentally separate. This separation takes on an ethical dimension at the poem's close. The objects of the speaker's address are revealed to be the bodies of water themselves, for which he has two words: "I apologize." The occasion of this apology seems cryptic at first, as the poem indicates no overt wrongdoing. The source of the apology must therefore be the act of comparison itself, which attempts to invest the natural world with human characteristics ("ecstatic in the swirling") even as it models human characteristics on the natural world. Humans are cursed with the knowledge of their fundamental and insurmountable isolation, but this knowledge engenders an ethical view of the universe denied to the rest of nature.

Buntin's provisional solution to the divide between humans and nature lies in the transformative power of art. Over and over he uses the imaginative world of the poem to blur the division between nature and humans. Metamorphosis becomes not only the method but the subject of these poems. In "On the Orchard's Edge," a "living bird" is metaphorically equated with the speaker's hand, yet the image never fully resolves itself as being completely bird or completely hand. The poem's power results from its insistence on a world where such simultaneous existence is possible. At the beginning of "Great \Vhite Heron," the speaker is tempted to personify the heron, until the heron's essential wildness makes such a personification impossible:

I want to say she is a pale
Cleopatra, but then she calls -
scroawk scroawk - and one cry
reminds me she is queen only of marsh.

By the end of the poem, however, the speaker again overcomes the divide between the human and the animal world, this time by speaking with the voice of a fellow heron: "And I step toward her, / lifting my reed-thin legs." The culmination of the union between bird and human occurs as an act of language: "in the low cry that stills the air, / we vanish." With a single word, "we," Buntin effortlessly achieves what is impossible outside of the poem. The union is a tenuous one - it "vanishes" with the poem's close - yet it exists fully in the poem's imagination.

Throughout Riverfall, Buntin employs a hard, authoritative diction to great effect. Objects, animals and plants are all called by their most specific names: 'Johnboats," "amberjack," "bromeliads" (to pull a few from a single poem). The cumulative effect of this diction is to create a sharply delineated world that demands to be read as primarily realistic rather than symbolic. vVorking as a counterpoint to this diction is the language of the ecstatic, as in the poem "Coyote:" "I can / follow her sweet desert song / like a stream through the fiery hills." In the most successful poems, these two dictions balance each other; flights of fancy are tethered to earth by the solid nouns. Occasionally, the romanticized diction overwhelms the other vocabulary. In these poems, the will to transcend feels somewhat forced, which is the great risk of ecstatic poetry.

Formally, the poems of Riverfall are all free verse. At its weakest, the verse can seem over-enjambed, the line breaks arbitrary. In general, the more rigidly structured the poems are, the more they are formally successful. In "The Egret, I Choose," Buntin combines a regular free verse couplet with Ammons-esque anaphora to achieve a taut, rhetorically charged, necessary form. It is important to note, however, that Buntin is not nearly as interested in the form of language as in what that language is saying. The poems of Riverfall succeed because they inventively express Buntin's most compelling visions, convictions and doubts. The poems matter to the reader because they matter so strongly to the poet. - Peter Kline

"Death by Water".
A review by Jarret Keene in The Tucson Weekly, December 22nd, 2005

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 cliches 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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