32. Excerpt from The Girls on the Roof

We think of riverbeds as fixed,

carved grooves in the face of the earth,

grooves that make convenient lines

down the middle of maps.

But rivers move, as does the land.

Humans change rivers.

They straighten, dam, and dike them,

building up the water’s currents all the more.

Men strip the prairies of grasses

with their long deep roots and

the rivers run even faster.

The rivers will not be tamed.

The wind whipping along the river

will not be tamed.

The fires whipping along the ditches,

the ditches that will fill up with water next spring,

will not be tamed.

Earth, air, fire, water.

Over and over they have their way.



The pull of the river.

The pull of the earth, wind, fire.

What is this thing we call love?

Love is whatever will be missed,

whatever we cannot do without.

Its force cannot be dammed.

It pours out over the land,

turning every house into a boat,

every field into a lake.

You don’t know where the river

is anymore and what is underneath.

You have a hint of what lies

behind the bark of a cottonwood tree,

but you’re afraid to look toward the horizon.

— Mary Swander

excerpt from The Girls on the Roof

Mary Swander was appointed Poet Laureate of Iowa in 2009. She is the author of over ten books of poetry and non-fiction. She is a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University.  Her most recent work is a book of poetry, The Girls on the Roof (Turning Point/Word Tech, 2009), a Mississippi River flood narrative. She is one of the poet laureate coming to Lawrence, Kansas March 13-14 for Poet Laureati! A National Convergence of Poets Laureate.


One thought on “32. Excerpt from The Girls on the Roof

  1. As it turns out, the author was a prophet of sorts in light of all the flooding in the Missouri River valley and elsewhere this summer. At any rate, the poem contains some indispensable wisdom.

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