River of Air

On Edward Burtynsky’s photograph, Feng Jie #5


Not the roadbed’s rubble-banked “river”   this river’s flood
too sluggish   to rise on wings of inverted quotes   cuts
channels broader than the metaphor fills   not that stream

nor those grey-foamed swells rolling   across the road   over
the heads of a man and his donkey   welling up from
two small fires   the picture’s sole bright undoings   silken

shimmers of orange-hooded spirits   that make ash from
the picture’s only wood   for this river gets along
with fire   shares fire’s enmity for the water that is

as missing from the picture   as from the moon   ashen
hillside   dust-covered shards of cinderblock   dusty man
and donkey    the one non-human form of life   borne on

this river   which supports neither pink Yangtze dolphin
nor finless porpoise   and which has drowned in its torpor
sturgeon and soft-shelled turtle   whose avenging ghosts throng

the river   and possess the bodies   of more deadly
swimmers   endotoxins   benzopyrenes   aerosol
denizens of a bed too wide to bridge   too savage

a tide for any dam to hold   river everywhere
but nowhere in the picture   like a god’s messenger
gifted with invisibility   and winged helmet

stronger than hardhats   that will not shield crews spidering
wrecked ramparts in the distance   what chance for tender manes
of donkey or man   as he leads the beast burdenless

and festive in studded red halter   through the river
to sacrifice   do his feet break into a half-run
his face into a smile   in hope of pleasing the god

who lives in the west   whose urgings will deliver him
up   where airborne blades finer than spider legs   sweeping
through the forest of his lungs   will open more rivers

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.