Nature & Place Prize, 2nd Place Winner: River Eclogue: Narcissus & Echo at the Bridge

It’s such an honor to share this poem by Dan Barton, second place winner of our 2022 Nature & Place Prize, with you today!

River Eclogue: Narcissus & Echo at the Bridge

after Ed Roberson


looking out on cement-framed river        we barely recognize our boundaries
silhouetted in milky bronze       rioting
at sudden confinement      & while from above we can see this turbulence      this shock & tumble

from endless flow       & release        the water consumes
our shadows as its own           its sun-blemished tain ripples
through us too       the constant play of light & cooldark      carrying

what we refuse         to acknowledge         pale fluorescence of
a supermarket bag ghosting beneath a boat’s wake
plastic brushstrokes            but also carp silvering past

our attempts at control            rotten pilings & years of rust
reflecting back our longing      & decline         our frontier
where a foreign trapper once planted

a canoe paddle for the first time in the onrushing
trickle of fetid wetland
tributary       & in staking claim drinking

from cupped palm          that liquid         both timeless
& specific to its cold
electric down the throat          defined by absence

& fish glinting just beneath the surface              abundance & a pulling
thirst at the back of the tongue attempting to speak
but falling short          could we bear it

to let damp build on our arms       swelling          until its weight relents
the glimmertrail that remains             like shadows dancing in the froth below
our gaze          is all we have      to know we exist


. . . . . . . .


what of this guttering canvas
that welcomes whatever light
paints in silhouette      dead
fish      palebloated     bobbing

to waves’ staccato        & the long gash
of a boat splintering past
reflections of buildings reflecting sky        congealed
with oil slick       metallic ripples you pour your image in

to disappear & reemerge
more yourself         it glistens
against bluer sky         but the picture you desire is only
a kaleidoscope of debris & sun      your face is diffracted

by boats’ receding wake         as the river takes        
what’s pulled by threads of current         only to change  



once clogged by rotting flesh & sun
-clots of fat         this still open wound festers in its slow current        shadows
mistaken for substance           but if we reached out

would they not be there          swirled by clouds of silt & shit       returning
an image we instinctively recognize as our own           reflections cut by steel
shards of fish       we belong to water as much as

paint it with our likeness           half-drowned bottles bobbing against cement flood
-wall       & it kindles our fallen expressions           our wonder
unsettled by remnants of waves          echoing to stillness

consuming our sight as much as late afternoon        simmered
into evening         even this can feel like home
though our faces eventually sink to twilight         & the river mimics the hush of rain


. . . . . . . .


listen       while the slowburn hum of cars
on the bridge is given      what was
first heard as a voice is
only trickling from algae-choked pipes

 remnants of last night’s rain
reverberating through city’s gut
to spill here        echoing
as you call it         music from caged mouths

 of drains        if we paid more attention          we could
unravel what this guttering communicates
to river         drowned rats & scraps of cloth
flushed from sight       but would you want to           

 listen       as traffic chokes behind us      what you take
for language is only overflow         & release



if we looked up           we could see this longing in others       a mother chasing her young
son to water’s edge        voice clenched at the leap she withholds from

the boy who       in a rush of laughter         settles for a thrown stone
to announce himself to river         a family of mallards startled         landing in silence

on the far side       from shattered wharf            workers pour red
clay     extending shore for new foundations        office buildings

& retaining walls        structures to frame our lives       like running toward loved ones
at the brink of flight        pulling them back           arrangements & gestures

we accept           as water does the stone the boy gifts
to surface rippled in a blueprint we pretend to know       feeling it as familiar

each time we read the space between each wavelet         we could
extend arms to distorted expressions        even though they reach back

we’d find only water’s cold embrace      reminders
we’re alien even as we yield to the other’s touch


. . . . . . . .


past the bridge the river flows & forks
pulling with it dappled orange
from autumn trees         lined by walkways
as couples bundled in wool coats

cling to each other against the bite of wind         
but could you feel it enough to
turn your back on a current that draws you  
as it does waning sun        electric & mottled

 on a surface painted in silt        streetlights
splintered by neon         I know you  

long for what you see in water’s embrace
to be contained           whole within a body 

but what you read onto it is       all you have
& in the undertow        fading with a glimmer



even though these bodies encased in foilglass              & broken
by waterside lights of restaurants        are ours         the river makes them
glow       crowned in blue

this much I know        our eyes reflected           & drifting like anthers blown
heavy with dew       give back only what we dream into their pinpoint depths

evening is when the river is most itself          blanketed by sheen of streetlights & building
fronts       it keeps only what it can hide       fish bottom-feeding        seeds
scattered by passing birds        even waves slow their dance

so the world around us returns to stillness          but all the more unfathomable
as what was once milky bronze marred by glow turns bands of violet

punctuated in gold        I know our reflections fade with the final beads of sun        & we go on
but it is still a comfort        giving in

to water’s endless pull            we bloom

& all we know of ourselves is          a spray of petals scattered by waves


Dan Barton

Dan Barton is a poet living in the Midwest, where he currently teaches writing while completing his PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Texas State University, and his work has appeared in journals such as Folio, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Grist, Permafrost, and The Bitter Oleander, among others.

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