No Shape Bends the River by Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni
Parlor Press, 2015; 114 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


In their New Measure Poetry Prize-winning collaboration No Shape Bends the River So Long, Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni do not find the path of least resistance as much as wear down obstacles in their way, carving for themselves and readers a new riverbed by which to navigate time and distance and life.

Inspired by their travels through the Mississippi River Valley over the course of several months, these poems cast long gazes over the river, detailing how it’s shaped the landscape and us. In “All the Particular Places We’ve Known Window Sometimes & Sometimes,” we realize:

all we know: water seeks its own
level, argues against what names

flattened out lonely or unremarkable. Every word
shatters what little day we might let in, slat

& line a fierce stance against lean & slope—that uneven

We are in deep and asked to see what has always been so elemental to our lives that we take it for granted. Too often we neglect to listen to nature for help in recognizing what we’re capable of and what our limitations are. We forget and must be reminded to “begin not with sky. / Begin not with flood. Begin underfoot.” Then we can

bow our heads,
look elsewhere. So, sure there’s no ocean

-made horizon, no shape to trace worn-down
edges we could find in any light. If each

curve was just cut by weather, its own
fierce moods, why pretend we’ve straightened out

& shored up. We can’t keep any place
in its place. Some days the sky darkened with

wings can’t shake the call, stop the pull
back, that tug against the distance

that’s threatening to widen. & in that gap
where echo calls back & then away

we pretend we can tell even the birds
how to live.

(“Begin Not With Coastline, Not With Harbor or Cove. Begin”)

The book is personal elegy and ecopoetic meditation, a conversation between two gifted minds about the lyric’s possibilities and a collection that taps into the history of America’s longest river. Like the water that gave it life, the book takes on the shape of whatever vessel (or reader) it’s in. Once we think we’ve figured it out, the book alters its state of matter—steam, water, ice—and challenges us to greet it new when we open it next. This is a book that runs deep and fast and, before you know it, “river[s] / into Gulf tide.” It leaves us longing to “give / back the river to the river, such small / remembrances we collect” (“Against Arranged Line & Proportion, in Defiance Of”).

And then sweeps us away once more.