John Ciardi, “About Rivers and Toes”

This is a poem I really like. John Ciardi, who was quite figure in mid-century American letters, went to the same college I did (Tufts). Many years ago, I came across a little book of his poetry (Someone Could Win a Polar Bear [1970]) in a used bookstore. I’ve never seen it online anywhere, so I decided to type it up. It’s been on one of those obscure areas of my Facebook page for about a decade now but deserves to see the light of day. 

John Ciardi, “About Rivers and Toes”

A river has a way to go
The way it goes is—flow. It flows
Over (mostly) mud and (sometimes) toes.
It makes its own mud, as you know.
But it has to depend on luck for toes.
The reason is—it can’t make those.

You have to make them and put them there.
The best way is to put them in bare
And (mostly) in summer. Unless you feel
You’d like to be—or are—a seal.
In that case, duck your toes when you please.
The cold will never make you sneeze.

—Except that a seal has no toes!

Now isn’t that just how it goes?
It’s the ones without toes that get
The best chance of getting them wet.
While we, if we put our toes in
When it’s freezing will get them back frozen.

It’s enough to make a man feel
He’d be better off as seal.

But were he a seal, I suppose
He’d feel bad about not having toes.
It’s a problem both ways, goodness knows.

But the problem of no toes
Is nothing (as you might suppose)
To a river. The river just flows.

Still, it’s good to have toes on your foot
(Or on both feet) for then you can put
One in or all in the mud—go ahead.
Provided it’s warm, as I said.

You could even put in your head.
I doubt the river would care:
It’s going a long way from there.
But heads left too long
In a river go wrong:
They lose all the part in their hair.

Still (the point is) the river won’t care.
It’s going a long way from there.
All it cares to know
Is the best way to flow
Over mud, toes, the part in your hair,
Or any thing else you could name.

To a river most things are the same.

[from Someone Could Win a Polar Bear (1970)- it’s illustrated by a line drawing of a river with two men and a seal by Edward Gorey, no less]


About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Boston, Education, Poetry, Rivers, Trees & Flowers, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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