The Fourth River

Tributaries, The New Nature: Three Poems by Caitlin Scarano

By on October 25, 2017

Selected by Ira Sukrungruang



I am driving by a field. Mountains crusted with a gold decay
surround me. My mother called yesterday; they finally have
a diagnosis. In the field, I notice a cow on her side,
a trembling mass. Sick paternal aunts and cousins
I’ve never met. I get out of the car and move toward the wire
fence. Inherited autosomal recessive mutation. Watch fluids
rush from her body, blood and matter I cannot name. Slit-lamp
exam of the eyes. Blood draws. Liver function tests. The black
calf beside her. One of my father’s sisters crawling across the living
-room floor. The mother’s low groans, her obvious
distress. All those symptoms finally under a name, a key
turning in my brainstem. The calf a silent creature.
Lesions on my father’s face. His twitching legs. Likely stillborn.
I did not attend his funeral. Closer to dirt than beast. You
might not have it,
my mother says. I watch the slipping sun.
Or may just be a carrier. I return to your car, decide
to do nothing. Thus, symptomless. Note how the herd
has already moved on.


During the Wildfires

My body cavernquiet as he kisses my hip. This taste.
Salt of a childhood still on me.

Sitting on the bench seat of my father’s pickup. The world
always passing by through cracked glass. Watching

my mother’s father slit the throat of a deer. Wildfire
runs from sternum to cervix. My skin stills

beneath him. Rain starts to fall in the skull.
The socket-dry earth screams for it. Who did you last

cross a body of water with? Whose name do you say
even with a throatful of dirt? Until he came, tenderness

hid in me like a cat that went beneath a shed to die.
Save bruises in jars. We are what we collect.

Inside his mouth I find a love letter his mother wrote
to his father years ago. I unfold the letter and find a series

of her sobs no one ever heard. What can I offer you
but this dream of a burning house? Even now my crow

eats his mantle of wasps at the window. Even now,
we hang maps like tapestries. We are where we’ll never be.

Love: the beetle I bit in half. It took me so long to realize
there are people who start fires, not to tend them,

but to see how things burn, and it took me even longer
to realize some places need fire simply to survive,
start again.


When you first ask if we can have a child

I’ve seen you undress in the yard, watched rain
turn to steam and rise off your skin. I’ve learned not to tell you

too often how overwhelmed I am by my want
for you. While the dog sleeps, her tail knocks against the floor
and I think about how we cannot always have access
to the happiness of those we love.

If we have a child, who will raise her? Certainly not the ghost
of a father I hardly spoke to. Certainly not the wolves you swear
you see circling me when you happen to wake in the night.

Think of where I came from—think
of the anger I’ve only recently set down beside a river
seething with silt. There are rooms for this kind of grief.

Some people fill whole houses with it.


I leave strips of paper and fistfuls of hair from my brush
for the flock of Steller’s Jays in our yard
but they won’t take these offerings. They want me to resist
the impulse to intervene.

In the car one night—constellations turning, country road
turning—I say, If we have a child,
you will love it more than me.

You don’t deny it. The ringing of bells passes through
the body and comes out as the sobs of a mother
behind a closed door. But what if nothing

is possession? Can I imagine a way out of myself


When I spot the wasp nest under the eaves
of our cabin, I wait for the sun to set
and then spray it with poison. I watch how the nest foams,
watch the wasps drop to the earth
one by one. Later, I cannot articulate my guilt to you

but I try. If we have a child, who will raise her? These trees
surround us on three sides. The river takes the fourth.

Tell me you believe our bodies together make a jar
that can hold light. Tell me you believe in love without leaving.
Winter without an underside of bruises.

The first snow of autumn falls and my heart crosses the river
in the black mouth of a crow. Praise the sorrow
-clogged throat. Praise this chain of howls
that rips across the mountainside.

I reach in the churning belly
of the oil drum stove and pull out the baby
you’ve been dreaming of.



Caitlin Scarano is a poet in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program. Her work was included in Best New Poets 2016 and The Best Small Fictions 2016. Her debut collection of poems, Do Not Bring Him Water, was released in Fall 2017 by Write Bloody Publishing. You can find her at