Barton Sutter: “White Feather”
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.