Red Deer River Suite (To the victims of the 2013 Alberta Flood) by Phoebe Tsang

1.

River wakes ravenous,
ready to devour—
smashed eggs,
baby animals,
last year’s corpses freshly thawed.
Her belly distends in the shape of an ark.

2.

Remember earth’s first living creature?
Birdsong at the cusp of grey dawn.
A single drop of meltwater, colourless.
How a river is born.

3.

Waskasoo Seepee, Wapiti River,
Elk River turned Red Deer
River with many names.

Serpent, shapeshifter
with tributaries for tentacles,
many-headed: each lake
a reservoir for dreams.

Sometimes River grows legs,
gets up and walks away.
But always she comes back.

4.

Floodplain.
Land’s loss is River’s gain.
Whole trees, roots untethered,
swept away like unfinished canoes
carrying ghosts of fishermen.
(River returns her dead
for ocean burial.)

5.

Journey at the speed of water.
Let current cradle you,
carve its course
through fossil-bed
like high school initials:

River loves Rock,
Rock loves River.

6.

Crests of green hills, restless.
Earth refuses to lie still
by River’s side—
Take me with you.

Tangled whorl of tall blond reeds:
a dappled nest, hiding place
for deer’s lean flanks.
She will not rest here.

Long-beaked fishermen plunge
white-feathered
into clear waters,
muddy River’s purity with cold blood.

Rocks bared like horses’ teeth,
stained and yellowed—
fossil libraries,
if you knew how to read.

Humpbacked bridge,
paint-chipped,
trusses gathering rust.
Why did the dinosaur cross the river?

Sun melts into River,
fire becomes water,
past is future.
Everything she touches is gold.

7.

River is to flotsam
as desert is to manna,
as rice and rose petals.

A blessing:
for all beings who dwell on the surface of water,
for all beings who dwell below the surface,
for all beings on the far banks,
for all beings who cross.

To the many faces of River,
wide, waning,
rich, hungry,
sweet, salt.

To the memory of mountains.

8.

Highway like a hot plate.
Oil and grit,
half-cooked carcasses.

Restrooms in way stations,
diners in gas stations,
formica booth table tops,
frozen fries.

The bookstore closed for the season.

9.

We are all equal when we bow
our lips to River.
Deer, hunter.
Nomad, settler.
Monk, lover.

Drink:
a kiss without end,
a love you can’t hold,
a heart that stays cold.

10.

Waskasoo means
hide for armour,
legs like iron,
hooves of gold,
antlers broad as the boughs of ancient elms,
as wise,
braver than braves—

means flesh for food,
blood for wine,
skin for leather,
shoes and shelter
until the chinook winds—

means there will be plenty,
your children will grow strong
never knowing need
for prayer—

to be innocent
of heartbreak and hunger.


“Red Deer River Suite” is a cross-genre, text- and soundbased
collaboration between Andy Gartner and Phoebe
Tsang. Andy Gartner works in the traditional genres
of folk music and storytelling. Phoebe Tsang is a classical
and contemporary/ experimental violinist and
poet. Gartner’s original vocals, music and text document
a journey by canoe down the Red Deer River. Tsang’s
poem explores the same landscape through history, mythology,
memory, and her own road-trips and travels
through Canada.


Listen to the Red Deer River Suite HERE.