The Riverman’s End

For Martin and Heather

William Stapleton

Out where the river runs wild and free and only the bravest dare row,

where the rapids are deep and the challenge is fresh

and it takes them where it means to go,

with breakneck speed, grinning into the wind, standing straight on the bow of their craft,

just a glimpse now and then of those captains you’ll catch,

flying by, near capsizing your raft.

They’ve no time for advice to those standing on shore

or to aid the ones just wading out,

for their task is to pilot this current, they think,

and it’s all they can do to stay out of the drink,

and their lives could be gone in the space of a wink

should they lose but a moment to doubt.

            Standing tall, they never must doubt!

So you look at those captains and then at yourself and wonder: “Why them, and not me?”

as you paddle along in your pitiful state, 

a canoe you hope no one will see.

But there’s just enough room for those trusted to you, for safety, provisions and tare.

So you keep to yourself, navigating the shore,

making passage for those in your care.


Now, those captains must learn what the river will do

when it makes that great turn out of sight.

How it dashes them up on the rocks of the shore

How it spins to the left and the right.

It beats them and breaks them and crushes their pride

Leaves them dizzy and sick and all jumbled inside

‘til they’ve all but forgotten that glorious ride

lying flat on their deck in the sun.

            There they lie, drying out in the sun.

As you round the point where the river was bent and survey the great wideness ahead,

you can see all those captains alone on their decks,

beat and broken and very near dead.

Then the current takes hold and you've little to do as it drags you down into its maw

headed straight for those rocks, you make ready to crash,

but at last, you rise up, roll and yaw.

Going back and away, then forward again,

fearing each time the rocks will prevail

you’re trapped in a cycling, circling tide,

in an eddy alongside a gale.

But each time you circle that treacherous tide

and you’ve not hit the rocks or been thrown to the side

and you’re kept from the falls, cascading and wide,

For the eddy’s small mercy give praise.

            Give the merciful current your praise!

Now, we’ll all have our time on the rapid but we’ll end up together, alone

going ‘round and about in an eddy; fragile, fearing and soaked to the bone.

for the eddy keeps silent the wild current’s call

we are given reprieve from a death at the fall

alongside those now grateful captains and all

as we move to and fro’ in the spin.

            We are safe, as the spin takes us in.

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The Riverman's End (For Martin and Heather) by William Stapleton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.