Will Wells

KEEPING AN EYE OUT

Once we’re under way, the river guide remarks,
It’s been a banner year for bodies. I found
two boozed-up college boys who flunked the test
on hypothermia, then a rookie
kayaker wrapped around a boulder, neat
as a Christmas bow. If we spot another,
I’ll put it in tow, unless you object….
He brandishes an extra coil of rope,
Eagle Scout of fresh disaster. Though we
came separately, our shudders school like fish.

A blue heron arrows in ahead of us,
skimming the water like an Egyptian god
trolling for souls. The Colorado crooks
a finger and beckons us around a bend.
And there, a doe and her two fawns wade in,
untroubled as we fumble for snapshots.
Relief unfolds like the float between rapids.

But I can’t help asking, What happens if
we find someone? And so, we earn badges
in no nonsense. It should be beached on high
ground and moored to a tree or boulder.
Triangulate landmarks and phone it in.
A shirt can mark the spot, and brush cover
lends modesty and keeps the buzzards off.

After bobbing up in a dead-man float,
the Boston fireman who went for a swim
climbs back on board, cracks a beer, and reflects,
If a fire victim has been charred, it smells
like a cook-out. Droplets on his pale skin
prism into burn the rest of us neglect
to mention. Each calm stretch, we scan the banks.

Alone at the stern, one passenger trails
her cupped hand under the surface, opens it
and jerks it back as if the water stings.
The river slips a finger through her ring
which will tumble until rushing current
slows, then find a bed in sediment.

Past the next meander, a sandbar splits
the flow. Posted like a semaphore,
the waiting heron poses all our grief.
We raft on by, married to the moment,
trying to see just what we came to see.
Process Notes: “As described in the poem, the poem describes an actual rafting trip I took on the Colorado, with as much accuracy as possible. I wrote the poem six months after having the experience. Some of the river guide’s quoted comments had lodged so firmly in my memory that I had to write the poem to attempt to exorcise them. Essentially, it struck me as odd that some thoughtless comments by the river guide could warp the entire purpose of the day-long river rafting experience from an intended outdoors idyll to a reflection on personal mortality and the limits of human compassion. The poem has been tinkered with subsequently, to improve individual lines, but is essentially intact from how it originally emerged. It is also faithful to the experience with the exception of the lost wedding ring, which occurred on a different rafting trip.”

Will Wells’ most recent volume of poems won the 2009 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and was published by Ohio University/Swallow Press in 2010. His latest manuscript, “Odd Lots, Scraps and Second-hand, Like New” is seeking a publisher. Will has been a fellow at various writers conferences including Sewanee, Bread Loaf, Wesleyan and West Chester, and a previous book-length collection won the Anhinga Prize.

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