Still Water

William Ashley Johnson

At sunup we begin again, above the dam
where the river is corralled
and strains against the mesh of roots
that line the banks,
each fat from spring’s run-off.
This is where the bodies come.
Two men to a boat, one poles
and spears the river bottom, holding tight
while the other spins the grapnel’s head
round and round, each pass longer than the last,
as the iron teeth carve the air
into hollow whispers that rebound
from bank to bank, building strength
enough to stamp the water’s surface.
Then release and silence,
as the nylon line is pulled
in an arc laid across the river’s back,
a thin white scar that fades to brown.
Brought back slow, hand over hand,
the wet coils pile on the deck
as each hesitation rings through the line.

Water makes things soft,
and what belongs down there gives
to the surface with a gentle tug.
But if the line stops,
the water holding fast,
you must follow it down,
breath held against the river’s weight,
right hand round the line
as the left leads, palm forward,
welcoming a sharp edge of metal
or a tree limb still green,
things that can be left behind.
You return in a gasp of air
to hard sunlight fallen to pieces
caught between the swollen roots
as the boats circle round
to find what it is
that the river won’t give up.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro


WILLIAM ASHLEY JOHNSON is completing his MFA in writing at UNC Greensboro. He attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he worked as a boat captain for the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team, a volunteer maritime-rescue organization.