Elizabeth Schultz: Poet

Rivers have always flowed through my life. From childhood, there were metaphorical rivers—streams of consciousness and rivers of memory—as well as the real rivers which flooded the downtown and which we canoed, watching out for deadheads and deer. Coming to Lawrence in 1967, I was invited to go swimming in the Kaw. Failing to check its depth, I dove from the bank and came up with the front of my bathing suit filled with the river’s silty bottom. I realized then that the river might have been the end of me, and that a river is not ever to be trifled with. I realized, too, that it was my good luck subsequently to learn how to dance sitting down in the middle of a rapidly running river.

Rivers have filled my mind as I came to teach H.D. Thoreau’s A WeBeth Schultzek on the Concord and Merrimac, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Norman McClain’s A River Runs Through It at the University of Kansas, and as I rafted down the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, mused at the headwaters of the Nile in Uganda, visited the Oda in Hiroshima to which people streamed, seeking its cool waters following the nuclear bombing in 1945. Though I’ve written about lakes in my memoir (Shoreline: Seasons at the Lake), of the sea in numerous scholarly articles on Moby-Dick, and in essays about Kansas lands (The Nature of Kansas Lands), rivers have always been with me. An early short story, titled “The River,” describes the Trinity River which flows through the Hoopa Indian Reservation in northern California and has recently been re-published in a collection of short stories based on my work on the reservation, The Last White-Skin Deer: Hoopa Stories.

Watching the Kansas River

by Elizabeth Schultz
Who looks upon a river
in a meditative hour
and is not reminded
of the flux of all things?


R.W. Emerson
My soul has grown
deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes
Tumescent in the spring,
the brown river surges.
It is swollen with desire.
It is sleek and slick,
its sheen spreading
as the heat rises.
Spume laps its edges.
The river foams.
It charges, lunging,
Leaping in its channel.
It discovers its depth.
The river is self-generating.


leaves, twigs, logs,
dogs, cars, cows,
carcasses unto itself,
On the stillest days,
when the river wears
satin, it is never still.
On the stillest days,
when its tangled banks
are seen mirrored
in the current, it rustles
and groans, seethes, sighs
in conversation with itself.
With the ruffling wind,
the reflections ripple
and morph into mosaics.4.
Five fishermen are stationed
on rocks along the river.
They are as patient as sages
in Chinese landscape paintings.
One sits in a crumpled plastic
chair. Their lines curve out from
their rods and vanish into the river.
Caught in an eddy mid-river,
two tree trunks gyrate slowly
like the hands of a clock.
Following a metronome
of their own, swallows swoop
in and out beneath the bridge.
A heron stands by, stalk still.
There is no sign of fish.
The river reveals nothing:
only its currents’ quick curl.
Like centuries of the faithful,
the fishermen believe in what
they cannot see, anticipating
the miraculous jolt.
Legends ride the river-
catfish monstrous enough
to swallow riffles, stagecoaches;
immense enough to feed three
neighborhoods; men wily
enough to wrestle gar eye-
to-eye, with the river rising.
The line straightens, the rod bends.
The fishermen brace their feet.
Any minute now, and expulsion
of carp, bullhead, drum fish,
crappy, strugeon. The bait is
taken and landed with its poisonous
package of PCBs and mercury.
The fishermen return tomorrow
to the gut-smeared rocks along the river.
They fish until the swallows vanish.
They fish although they do not see.
They throw back some small fry.
They scale others for supper.
The fishermen return tomorrow.5.

It moves alongside us.
It passes beneath us.
It swishes around us.
It shapes our boundaries.
It bears our history.
It permeates our dreams.
We use it. We disturb it.
We name it. We claim it.
We touch it. It touches us.


glacial melt,
draining south,
over floodplains,
through clay,
sand, gravel, loess,
around boulders,
named by and for
the Kanza people,
who drank it
and bathed in it,
first mapped
by a Frenchman
in 1718, 170 miles
free flowing from
the confluence
of the Republican
and the Smoky Hill
to the Missouri,
four miles wide
at Wamego, easy
going for canoes
and pirogues
stymieing steamboats
with its mud,
dug up by dredges
reaping its sand,
after excessive rain,
cresting its banks
drowning beasts
and men for centuries,
a wilderness river,
polluted and damaged,
called the Kaw
by those who still watch it


A turtle shell hung
on my apartment wall,
a decoration as large
as a shield. It was worn
and scored, but the sea
had polished it to a gleam.
A turtle shell hung
on my apartment wall
commemorating those
who live for 10,000 years,
who shaped the continent,
who support the globe.
A turtle shell hung
on my apartment wall,
until the night we tipped
it into the river, sending
it swirling back to the sea.


In a canoe on the river
we can go with the flow,
or maneuver against its grain.
Either way, the river moves us.
Along the bank, we drift
with orioles sewing their gaudy
orange into the green canopy
of cottonwoods and willows.
Paddling the central channel,
we ride a progressive current,
around bends, past sandbars,
into rapids, spellbound by speed.
Along the bank, we drift
among beavers, who wink and
vanish, leaving us to follow
in a great blue heron’s wake.
Paddling the central channel,
we swerve around a tree, roots
exposed and straining the river
of its plastic bags and condoms.
Along the bank, we drift
among cottonwood seeds spun
out on currents of air, light-filled
and leisurely in their wandering.


On a sandbar
a heron is laid
out with care.
A dream catcher,
its design is
pressed into sand.
Its wings stretch
in skeletal symmetry.
Feathers crochet
its light bones.
Its feet curl into
dark amulets,
and its beak is
a polished blade.
Scarabs bead
its intricate fretwork.
the shining insects
devour the design,
releasing the bird
into a river of light.


One winter the eagles return.
Up and down the frozen river,
they stake themselves out in
the cottonwoods’ dark branches.
Their gaze is imperial,
their shadow iron on the ice,
their beaks refined devices.
Glinting in the sun, their white
helmets flash like steel.


The river freezes.
Its urgency is sedated.
Its deep brown pales.
it lies on the land,
the translucent skin
of its serpentine self.
The river thaws.
It puddles the sky.
Its scales shine.
Between stripes
of white, it uncoils
ribbons of sunset.
Unseen under ice,
the river stirs.


At night the river is
opaque. It rolls thick
as black oil and
takes all prisoners.
It consumes the night,
the shadows of trees.
It swallows the glint of
campfires and animal eyes.
On a midnight dare,
a man sets out swimming
across the river, steady,
and swift, self-assured.
He did not foresee
a deadhead collision
or his body, snagged,
twisting and turning.
A girl, craving darkness,
leaps from the bridge.
She is buried in the water,
rushing and rinsing.
A naked boy stands on
the shore, his piss aspiring
toward the river. He listens
for the fusion of streams.


In August,
in a season of drought,
consider the river,
pursuing its course
through a sandbar maze,
reconfiguring the land,
feeling its way forward,
finger by fluid finger.
Sucking and seething,
the river’s waters
sieve through the maze.
As clouds in a streaming
sky, islands of sand
emerge in the river’s flow.
The sand rearranges
itself, accommodating
buses and stumps,
absorbing protozoa
and chemicals equally.
Straining, cleansing,
the island’s shifty shores
release the river from
is putrefaction.
So my dreams filter
the drifting night of
uncertainty’s detritus,
buoying me, over and over,
restoring me to morning.


Once we waded in the river.
Once we swam in the river.
Once we danced, sitting down,
while the river circled and gurgled around us.

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