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Peter Huggins reviews Riverfall, poems by Simmons B. Buntin

Riverfall, poems by Simmons B. BuntinThere are no coyotes where I live, or, at least, I have not heard any. The only apparent exception to this situation is my neighbor’s Coyote, his camper, which he so thoughtfully parks on the street in the summer and a good bit of the rest of the year, presumably so that he can make a quick getaway, like the coyote (vaguely reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote) pictured on his Coyote. In other parts of my state reports have come of wandering coyotes; since Alabama has a lot of trees and lots of places for animals to forage, this comes as no surprise. But the report of coyotes that I want to address is found in Simmons Buntin’s first book of poems, Riverfall, with its shimmering blue cover and salmon (from the Irish publisher, Salmon Poetry) leaping up the waterfall.

Riverfall is divided into three sections—A Body of Water, On the Orchard’s Edge, and The Last Harvest. Each of these sections begins with the title poem of the section; that is, A Body of Water begins with “A Body of Water.” The first poem sets the tone of this section and indeed of the book as a whole, concerning itself with water and the prospect of water. Poems such as “Groundwater” and “Running the Rio Negro” carry this tonal and thematic unity forward as do the three wonderfully imagined letter poems from Charles Darwin to his sister Catherine which conclude the section and which quite literally describe a passage to another world that is and isn’t “A simple combination of muted / sky and sea.”

Even in the next section, On the Orchard’s Edge, we are not far from water as we follow the heron which “spreads her elegant wings / across the bay” in “Great White Heron.” Looks may deceive and this Cleopatra of a bird is “queen only of marsh.” Appropriately enough, there are not only birds but snakes “tasting the rosy scent / of death....” There are also stony fields, gaps in stone walls (a la Robert Frost), ants, spiders, egrets, and others, most notably and startlingly the indigo bunting, most iridescent of birds, in the poem of the same name:

not so much
the silver chorded calls
or the silent intervals

of indigo flash
between yellowgreen limbs,
but the complete cessation:

the wind, the river, the earth’s
core groaning
among its fiery teeth

to hear this simple song.

The last section of the book is a perfectly realized if spare harvest of poems. Here as in the two previous sections water predominates. To this, however, mythmaking is added as in “Piñon Jays Drinking at Great Salt Lake” or “Thieving” or “Coming into the Premeditated Light” or even “Colorado” with its pointed but not painful cry:

Oh what is the geography
of this place that

we cannot define it?

Without a doubt, though, the most appealing poem of this section if not the entire collection is “Coyote.” This poem, like the book itself, strikes me as creating a balance between myth and direct observation that is hard to beat. “I cannot follow the river of her myth. / Perhaps Papago, or Hopi.” Couple that with this:

She ate the horned toad spitting blood

into her eyes, the gila monster leaking
venom through her veins, and the prickly pear shooting spears

through her tongue.
And she became strong.

The consequence is this:

I said, I cannot follow the river
of her myth; but I can

follow her sweet desert song
like a stream through the fiery hills.

And since coyote has come east, I might add through the green hills, too, a hair-raising, but nevertheless welcome sound in Simmons Buntin’s welcoming book, Riverfall.


Peter Huggins books of poems are Necessary Acts, Blue Angels, and Hard Facts; he is also the author of a picture book, Trosclair and the Alligator, which has appeared on the PBS show Between the Lions, and a novel for younger readers, In the Company of Owls.
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by Simmons B. Buntin

   Salmon Publishing
   May 2005
   ISBN 1903392470

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