A Muse of Water

By Carolyn Kizer 1925–2014 Carolyn Kizer
We who must act as handmaidens   
To our own goddess, turn too fast,
Trip on our hems, to glimpse the muse   
Gliding below her lake or sea,   
Are left, long-staring after her,   
Narcissists by necessity;

Or water-carriers of our young
Till waters burst, and white streams flow   
Artesian, from the lifted breast:   
Cupbearers then, to tiny gods,   
Imperious table-pounders, who   
Are final arbiters of thirst.

Fasten the blouse, and mount the steps   
From kitchen taps to Royal Barge,   
Assume the trident, don the crown,   
Command the Water Music now   
That men bestow on Virgin Queens;   
Or goddessing above the waist,

Appear as swan on Thames or Charles   
Where iridescent foam conceals   
The paddle-stroke beneath the glide:   
Immortal feathers preened in poems!   
Not our true, intimate nature, stained   
By labor, and the casual tide.

Masters of civilization, you
Who moved to riverbank from cave,
Putting up tents, and deities,
Though every rivulet wander through   
The final, unpolluted glades
To cinder-bank and culvert-lip,

And all the pretty chatterers
Still round the pebbles as they pass
Lightly over their watercourse,
And even the calm rivers flow,
We have, while springs and skies renew,   
Dry wells, dead seas, and lingering drouth.

Water itself is not enough.
Harness her turbulence to work   
For man: fill his reflecting pools.   
Drained for his cofferdams, or stored   
In reservoirs for his personal use:   
Turn switches! Let the fountains play!

And yet these buccaneers still kneel   
Trembling at the water's verge:   
“Cool River-Goddess, sweet ravine,   
Spirit of pool and shade, inspire!”   
So he needs poultice for his flesh.   
So he needs water for his fire.

We rose in mists and died in clouds   
Or sank below the trammeled soil   
To silent conduits underground,   
Joining the blindfish, and the mole.   
A gleam of silver in the shale:   
Lost murmur! Subterranean moan!

So flows in dark caves, dries away,
What would have brimmed from bank to bank,   
Kissing the fields you turned to stone,
Under the boughs your axes broke.
And you blame streams for thinning out,   
plundered by man’s insatiate want?

Rejoice when a faint music rises   
Out of a brackish clump of weeds,   
Out of the marsh at ocean-side,   
Out of the oil-stained river’s gleam,   
By the long causeways and gray piers   
Your civilizing lusts have made.

Discover the deserted beach
Where ghosts of curlews safely wade:   
Here the warm shallows lave your feet   
Like tawny hair of magdalens.
Here, if you care, and lie full-length,   
Is water deep enough to drown.

Carolyn Kizer, “A Muse of Water” from Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000. Copyright © 2001 by Carolyn Kizer. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Source: Poetry (March 1959).


This poem originally appeared in the March 1959 issue of Poetry magazine

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March 1959
 Carolyn  Kizer


Poet, essayist, and translator Carolyn Kizer was born in 1925 in Spokane, Washington. Raised by a prominent lawyer and highly educated mother, Kizer’s childhood was suffused with poetry. Of her development as a poet, she noted to the Poetry Society of America: “My parents were both romantics: father favored the poems of Keats; mother went for Whitman. No evening of my childhood passed without my being read to. But I think my . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Men & Women, Parenthood, Living, Relationships

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

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