By Billy Collins

Waterfalls don’t have stanza breaks or any final punctuation that would interfere with their falling. So in keeping with their unbroken continuousness, I rendered this particular falls in one stanza and, indeed, one long sentence. It’s a poem of direct observation until the point where I lose sight of the river as it continues on its way around a bend. At that point, a “camper’s guide” is deployed, for I follow the river all the way to its demise as it meets the ocean, losing its name and feeling a shock as fresh water is overwhelmed by salt. Some readers have seen the poem as a metaphor for the passage of life, but I was too busy being faithful in my descripting to think of such weighty matter. These falls, by the way, are in Idaho.

Elk River Falls

is where the Elk River falls

from a rocky and considerable height,

turning pale with trepidation at the lip

(it seemed from where I stood below)

before it unbuckles from itself

and plummets, shredded, through the air

into the shadows of a frigid pool,

so calm around the edges, a place

for water to recover from the shock

of falling apart and coming back together

before it picks up its song again,

goes sliding around some massive rocks

and past some islands overgrown with weeds

then flattens out, slips around a bend,

and continues on its winding course,

according to this camper’s guide,

then joins the Clearwater at its northern fork

which leads it all to the distant sea

where this and every other stream

mistakes the monster for itself,

sings its name one final time

then feels the sudden sting of salt.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002–03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Elk River Falls” originally appeared in Aimless Love (Random House, 2013). Collins’s most recent book is Musical Tables (Penguin Random House, 2022).

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