In her unpublished endorsement of this collection, US poet and academic Linda Gregerson asserts that the work is half elegy and half ode. This is an apt description that manages to pinpoint the poem’s crux, for Ephemeral waters is both plaint and lyric exaltation for a much mythologised yet ailing river. The teller of the poem journey is deeply passionate and sorrowful for this force of nature that gives life in abundance. But such a force can also take life just as easily, which is best illustrated by the discovery of a drowned man ‘rapid tossed’. The river held on to its victim for sixteen days until ‘the current offered up the leavings / thirty-five miles downstream’ (‘I – Colorado’). Likewise, humans are attempting to capture the river’s vitality via Colorado’s extensive system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts, which provide precious water for over 25 million people within the mostly arid southwest region.
The Arizona section of Ephemeral waters is perhaps the most fulfilling. It contains Middleton’s investigations into a river in crisis, along with many songs, lists and voices. Such elements draw out Middleton’s verve and ingenuity. Here, Middleton discusses the Hoover Dam:
So, Grand Canyon ends in dam She’s stuffed into a corset, the river her massive hunger for bodies – her victims at Harding Rapids or Diamond Creek or Mile 125 – at last made sluggish by dam wall She’s strong-armed into lethargy silt load turned-turtle You know, once this was a seafloor Let’s move the seafloor back (from ‘III – Arizona’)
Within this section Middleton also creates an allusive list of how to read her journey:
hackberry: the signature of confluence portage: the journey achieved on our shoulders rapid: the rocks h-e-a-p, h-e-a-p high sandstone: the transported lakebed Ashley 18-5: who came before; word of warning painted desert: the patina of bruised earth butte: each a stupendous cameo basalt: in which we enter darkness flexure: hunger’s gulch (from ‘III – Arizona’)
In many ways, Ephemeral waters can be viewed as the art of research within a poem. The poet is as much researcher as poet – sometimes even more so. The work is sprinkled with vital statistics and anecdotal evidence, and marginal notes both help and hinder. On my first reading of the poem I gave little regard to them: although I respect marginalia’s role in poetry I am cautious of it and much prefer mystery to handholding. When I read the work again with notes and poem interweaving, I was reminded of Victorian novels that provide chapter outlines in sparse yet precise language. At times such notes in Ephemeral waters seemed like overstatement or gimmick, and at other times they proved to be necessary subtitles for fragments, voices or songs. But the marginalia can also be viewed as a second and independent poem. Read on their own, the words take on the appearance of a second journey of the river – a ‘found poem’ of road signs, ephemera, directions and place names. Because of this they appear more learned in tone against the fresh-faced enthusiasm of the rest of the poem. The marginal notes therefore become confident river guide.
Overall, Ephemeral waters is an impassioned poem for an iconic river and the region it is so intricately bound to. Told by an outsider who ‘loved and wanted to know this landscape’ (from ‘Reflection, after’), Middleton acknowledges the potency of place, the fragility of ecology, the imprint of human history and the enduring allure of exploration.