I’m paddling upriver, upwind,

When the water widens like a lake,

The blue deepens, the wind stiffens,

I have to dig and strain. It’s work,

But I’m glad enough to bend to the task and forget,

For now, my daughter’s blast of acrid anger

From ten days back, which pursues me

The way smoke follows you round a fire.


This country got smoked right down to rock

Some time ago—jack pines torched, cedars

Scorched to skeletons along the banks—

So it bucks me up to see young aspens sprung

As tall as I can stretch and jack pines shoulder-high.


Up ahead, a white fleck rides the blue,

And as we pass, I see the fleck is one down feather,

Quill erect, a miniature mast, the feather curved

Like a spinnaker taut with wind. I want to shout

“Ahoy there, mate!” but I’m groaning against a gust,

And the little white sailboat’s gone.


No walleyes at the rapids, but the firestorm

Spared the portage, a green oasis in this bone yard,

And I lunch in the fragrant shade of seasoned cedars.

Quickened by rest, carried by current, nudged along

By the breeze at my back, I’m relaxed on my return—

And amazed, a mile downriver, to sight White Feather

Not just afloat but faring along quite nicely, thanks.


To the sailor who steers White Feather,

So small he can’t be seen, my canoe

Must resemble a trireme, gigantic, titanic,

And yet White Feather sails steadily on,

And I think of the Vikings sailing blind

For Vinland, of Mandans in their bullboats

Down the Swirling Waters, of Brendan in his coracle,

His willingness to be blown wherever

God seemed to want him to go,

Of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod

Out fishing among the stars.


And how bungling through a midlife crackup

Feels like shooting a deadly rapids

With little to no control, but somehow

Most people survive. Oh, I know

White Feather is only an accident

Of happenstance. The forces of physics apply.

Sooner or later, the downy wee sloop will sink.

And yet as I pass White Feather, I memorize

Her image as a motto for emergencies,

For keeping my wits and hope together,

By telling myself, beneath my breath:

“White Feather, White Feather.”



Barton Sutter is the only author to win the Minnesota Book Award in three categories—poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The most recent of his nine collections is Nordic Accordion: Poems in a Scandinavian Mood (Nodin Press, 2018). He has written for public radio, he has had four verse plays produced, and he often performs as one-half of The Sutter Brothers, a poetry-and-music duo.

Table of Contents | Next Page