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Kara Dorris

ELEGY FOR THE RIVER THAT WAS                                                


Can we still call it a riverbed

when it’s infested only with moss & dew, tadpoles

& the baby jumpers they grow into?


We feel our way with our eyes,

not the soles of our feet, we slog only through

the heaviness of heat—


10 feet tall & 10 feet wide, water rushes beneath

the highways in pipes, beneath the hooves

& muzzles of livestock, bales of hay.


Water rushes from a manmade lake into a natural one,

into the betrayed side of the dammed riverbed,

the life of the never-should-have-been


exchanged for the dying.

Water stolen to cool the nearby nuclear plant.

Don’t worry, my second dad says,


the reactor isn’t as big as it seems.

The 10 story walls, 13 feet thick, are just for containment.

Can we call it reassurance & mean illusion?


Who knew water could act like a pack of snakes,

embed itself as easily in absence as presence—

that stone mimicked the flow of water,


could take water’s place when dammed—

as we walk the dry riverbed, tiny frogs jump

away from our feet. We must seem 10 stories tall.



I grew up reaping, he says, cutting the pulse,

separating the seeds at harvest.

You have a choice. It must be terrible, he laughs,

to only do what you want.

Sometimes it is. He doesn’t ask how.                                                                     


We keep penicillin in the fridge, needle

in hand, for horses with open-sore eyes

& listlessness. He thinks penicillin cures our wounds—

but the impossibility of our want cuts us,

deepening lines across wrists.


Is he bleeding out from this cut,

this desire to be here & anywhere else? Between

who he is right now & who he wants to be?


I want to spill through the field every day,

collect flies, burrs, & snakes. I want

to raze it, drive the tractor & till the earth,

be buried, post-bloom, beneath.

I want to stand with those two forgotten horses

& flood their isolation with my own.


Instead, he tells me if I need something to do

I should clean the filter on my AC unit,

toothpick a blade of grass,

or harvest the wings of something smaller,

then thrash it. But I don’t amputate—

I hold on, saturate winged veins

with the salt & sweat of my fingertips.

So heavy this stain, beetles never fly again.


My stepdad doesn’t understand why I don’t kill—

he will shoot a goat to stop its suffering,

amputate his finger to stop infection,

then use this loss to scoop peanut butter from the jar.

He can’t grasp the small deaths,

the self he sacrifices as executioner.


Yesterday, he unknowingly slit his palm

fixing a thermostat, then wiped sweat

from the wing of his forehead, left a trail of blood.

Today, Freon burns bombard his knuckles.

My stomach tightens as I imagine

his skin healing, microscopically bridging

a distance his wide hands can never measure.


His hands that only sing to mechanical things.

When the body is merely a hammer,

what have we ever consciously mended

that was more heart than machine?


He will fight against anything,

scratch at the wounds as he works.

About suffering they were never wrong;

we drive on. The thorn tear on his forearm,

the bubbled bee sting on my cheek,

when I thought, you are not good enough,

when he said we aren’t a family.

We never apologize.


We like to make Kool-Aid pickles,

sour to pineapple or lime to sweet,

turn what is into what it never wanted to be.


We have places to go. We sing to Patsy Cline

& take the asphalt road away from itself.




The snow cannot hide

disappointment over the idle

& the dead. & it’s true

we too have nothing to offer

but a soft-wet emptiness                                    

snow already understands.

We let our ditches

become washed-out bridges.

Our road-kill, trophy mirages.

Let gold meridians

& guardrails disintegrate

into breadcrumbs & suggestion.

We mountain weightlessness

into weight, lone into loneliness.

We learn to pull on flak jackets

& silence gracefully

without gracing our skin.

We learn to tread with stealth.  

Earrings jangle

like an aftermath of traps.

But still, the snow cannot forgive us

easy captives, fat depressives

lost in surrender. We cannot

forgive each other.

Snow days remind us why

we long to drive into a volcano     

or drive-in movie

to forget our weight makes

its own ghost in snow.  

We simply cannot give

each other what we need.

It’s not that we don’t know how

but that we refuse

to be someone we are not,

the other refuses too.

-from When the Body is a Guardrail selected by Sheila Fiona Black, Spring 2024 Guest Editor

Kara Dorris earned a PhD in literature and poetry at the University of North Texas. Currently, she is an assistant professor of English at Illinois College. Her full-length collection, Have Ruin, Will Travel, was published by Finishing Line Press (2019), as well as her second book, When the Body is a Guardrail (2020). Her third book, HitBox, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books in 2024. She has also published five chapbooks. Her anthology, Writing the Self-Elegy: The Past is Not Disappearing Ink, was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2023. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, DIAGRAM, Gold Wake Live, I-70 Review, Southword, Rising Phoenix, Harpur Palate, Cutbank, Hayden Ferry Review, RHINO, Tinderbox, Puerto del Sol, The Tulane Review, and Crazyhorse, among others literary journals, as well as the anthology Beauty is a Verb (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Her prose has appeared in Wordgathering, Waxwing, Breath and Shadow, and the anthology The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016). She has made a career of failing, of never being satisfied with her own writing. Loves slow country mornings rocking in porch swings and driving lonely highways fast, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or The Golden Girls) and listening to The National’s High Violet, swimming laps and taking naps with her pooch while dreaming of poetry…

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