Kate Middleton, Ephemeral Waters. Artarmon, N.S.W.: Giramondo Publishing Company, 2013. ISBN 9781922146489
As a river system that passes through seven states of the United States of America and parts of northwest Mexico, the Colorado River is some 2,330 kilometres long and a significant part of many people’s lives. It is the way this river winds in and out of people’s lives as well as its deviations, history, doubt about its future and overall its passage of water, that Middleton takes as her focus in Ephemeral Waters.
Rather than being a collection, Middleton has chosen to follow the Colorado River from its source in the Rocky Mountains to the point it peters out in Mexico through one long poem. While the book is divided into sections determined by the borders the river crosses, Middleton does not let this interfere with the flow of the poem, and rather uses such a device as a comment on the human-created arbitrariness of such divisions. Indeed the poem and the river cross such borders almost without comment, such as the divide between Colorado and Utah. The book notes this division, as do the margin notes which go from “I-70 / Colorado” to “I-70 / Utah” however the poem itself reads as, on the Colorado side:
this tabletop, frisking for the weak spot
water’s tread met sandstone
and river cut her way down
to road Crossing the state line (27)
Then on the Utah side:
creeps from view while
road signs hint at what passes
for wilderness – No Services
for forty-something miles
Just the long, straight blacktop (31)
Here Middleton uses the poem and the book divisions to make a thought-provoking comment about the way divisions are experienced. The human-created book marks the divisions between the states as significant, however the river and the poem critique these divisions. Further, Middleton lets the structure and layout of her stanzas change at will throughout the poem. Rather than relying on arbitrary structures to denote change, Middleton allows the poem to flow and change almost like a river. For a reader the changes seem almost imperceptible—just like the changes in the flow of a river—and lend the whole poem a vital sense of fluidity.
This idea engages with what Maureen Devine and Christa Grewe-Volpp identify as a key element of depictions of water. For Devine and Grewe-Volpp water is “a continually changing entity—sweet or salty, still or raging, frozen or crystallized or even evaporated, in the form of rain (drops), snow (flakes), sleet, hail, glaciers, icebergs, rivers, lakes, puddles, oceans, warm or cold and all the variations in between—challenges cultural perceptions of it”. Devine and Grewe-Volpp identify the way in which water presents a challenge to ideas of singularity and stability. Further, they acknowledge the ways in which water is able to present itself in various forms without becoming unreliable. The sense of fluidity and change described here is essential to Middleton’s book, as it is this sense of fluidity that allows her to engage with the Colorado River fully.
As well as allowing the river to cross human divides in Ephemeral Waters, Middleton also examines the fluidity of a river through repetition and her use of punctuation. Middleton deliberately excludes full stops in her work. Rather, she uses stanza breaks and the blank space on the page to create a sense of pacing that gives the poem a lot of flexibility. This place-based poetry allows the very page itself to act as a place, as the poem becomes a river that picks its way across the page rather than being constrained by human ideas of punctuation pauses. Middleton’s use of repetition also reflects this sense of fluidity. The poem returns to certain themes again and again, retracing its steps. However, these repetitions of themes are not necessarily simple; rather each time they are introduced they are slightly changed. In this way Middleton engages with both the consistency, and the change, of a river. In this sense Middleton engages, through the long form of her poem, with how a river may actually operate.
The poem also does not ignore the other influences on a river, including the animals that live along or within it and the people whose lives it influences. Middleton’s margin notes contain repeated references to “Bestiary” which indicate parts of the poem that engage with the animals that are a part of the Colorado River’s journey. One example of this is the Kanab Ambersnail. The snail is named only in the margins, so its appearance in the actual poem is not marked by its name, only its presence. This allows it to enter the poem in much the same way it would appear to the casual observer or the river itself. Here Middleton describes the way in which:
Cling cling again to Paradise
Cling through stab
through sweep of sunlight –
Canyon sings staccato throb
of hell-hot rock
while snail rims calamity
Yet snail still clings amber as
the amber light of day
keeps amber vigil through the blight
through slight hours creeps
slimy to cress and sedge
scrapes sustenance clings to ledge (77)
It is significant that Middleton chooses to depict all kinds of animals that appear along the river and not just those that might be initially obvious, or which might be the most appealing to a general audience. The Kanab Ambersnail is a critically endangered species that is endemic to Arizona and Utah and one of its three habitats is Vasey’s Paradise, a spring along the Colorado River. Middleton acknowledges this location in the margins of her poem but doesn’t let it intrude on the actual poem itself. In this way she allows the presence of various animals to wander in and out of the poem, much like they would the river, and leaves clues in the margins for readers who wish to follow up more about various appearances. Consequently, Middleton strikes a balance between depicting a place as it is, and allowing the reader to engage on a deeper level with the environment if they choose.
Sections of the poem also deal with the human history and development along the Colorado River. Middleton has sections that engage with Major John Wesley Powell’s journey down the river as well as towns that are now abandoned and museum exhibits. One particularly striking example of this is the sequence that describes the creation of Lake Powell. Middleton describes the process of the lake’s filling through the different years and how the lake is already a symbol:
and by the third year of filling the feeders have started to
feel it – the goosenecks
flooding – and the place
stands for elsewhere
Charlton Heston crashes
into water shuffles along till
he arrives at apes, while
year four sees calcium adhere to the sandstone walls beneath (57)
Here Middleton describes the way Lake Powell was used as the setting for the movie Planet of the Apes and how this human created lake is already a symbol for “elsewhere”, a strangely concocted version of a place. Further this section is highly enjambed which reflects the constant filling of the lake and the way it transforms the place it occupies. Middleton writes this section as if it is addressed to the river, however she does not forget that this is an experience that has multiple narrators and follows this with a section from the point of view of the river itself where:
laden till the dam River slows
restless body walled calling stilled
and quiet River near to silence
yet sotto voce lapping, never silent (59)
Here the agency of the river is recognised as even while the river is dammed it nevertheless is not a passive entity.
As a long poem Middleton’s Ephemeral Waters is well suited to depicting the Colorado River. The poem deviates and repeats like a river, but it also always flows onwards. Significantly, though, Middleton never tries to colonise the river by making it a poem or pretending to speak for it. Rather she lets her poem exist alongside the river as part of its environment, as a stream of words that take as their inspiration a river and pass this movement on to the reader.
Rosalind McFarlane is a doctoral candidate with Monash University having previously studied at the University of Western Australia. Her critical work engages with ideas of place, contemporary Asian Australian poetry and depictions of water. She also publishes creative work and is currently part of a collaborative project being written with Siobhan Hodge entitled Speaking Geographies.
 Maureen Devine and Christa Grewe-Volpp, “Introduction”, in Words on Water: Literary and Cultural Representations (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2008), 3.