Write to the River — Winter 2017 / 2018 Prose & Poetry

In our winter writing prompt, we see the sun setting upon St. Paul from the beloved Indian Mounds Park blufftop view. (Photo by Tom Reiter)

Our winter submissions beautifully showcase how even in its frozen form the Mississippi River continues to inspire and take center stage amidst our busy cityscape. 

A special thanks to these and all of our contributors throughout Write to the River's inaugural year! Whether inspiring, funny, heartbreaking, thought-provoking or all of the above, your poems and stories remind us all of the force that is the Mighty Mississippi and the important role that it plays in our lives and communities. It is our privilege to share them all. We can't wait to see what year two brings!

Write to the River is a creative writing project to inspire artistic engagement with our river environment. We invite you to share an original poem or short prose response to seasonal images along the Upper Mississippi River. Our next photo prompt and call for creative writing submissions will be in the February issue of our e-newsletter, "Mississippi Messages." 


By Suzanne Swanson

Mississippi, underneath
the pallid fire of another city
morning.  Winter bleeds

the sun’s rising of heat, creates
a vision of our river
as shining, solid.  Ice

simply another form of water,
water never fails to flow
under that layer.  You,

river, pull us into beauty,
remind us:  I never
leave.  One thing can be
more than one thing.


Taking Time

By Jim Larson

The sun has done its best all day
to turn the ice back to water
but the River won’t have it.

The River knows to rest this time of year;
no tugs, no barges, no kayaks.
The empty trees all have the same idea.

Even the buildings
have their eyes closed.
Time to put this day back with all the others.

Time to gather up a few friends
at a quiet table.  Get some talk flowing about
what keeps you warm below the surface.



By Navjot Sandhu

Winding serpent trails
a little dampness colluding
forming rivulets, merging, 
connecting, ever larger rush
Cutting swaths through the wilderness
Draining, cleaning, sustaining, generative
Force enough to push and pull 
landscapes and narratives,
Fertile lands, seeping industries
Steamboats, Barges,
Oaks, Willows,
Eagles, and Chickadees,
lives of the living things, 
remains of the dead
consuming, transforming
Flowing the muddy earth
into the ocean's clear blue
Moving, always moving
Even in its stillness.

ziibi is the Ojibwe name for the Mississippi River
Mníšošethąka is the Dakota name for the Mississippi River


Great River

By Barbara DeCoursey Roy

The river doesn’t see color or division.
Red or blue states merely states
of being—sundown trending garnet,

but turning midnight blue just before dawn
cleanses muddy water, washing away
the sins of the fathers. 

One indivisible.  Holy water, the Black Robe
rode; bloody water, Grant’s ironclads trolled.
Hosting both beaver and trapper. 

Oasis for Red on their trail of tears;
a Red Sea for Blacks hankering for
the warmth of other suns. 

Strife-roiled, yet rolling.  On.  Unconstrained
by armies of the dead.   Breaking boundaries
imposed by paltry dreams, feeding underground

streams, breaching the banks of imagination. 
A mighty chorus of voices singing “Min Wiconi.”
Water is Life.  Colorless, fluid, never tame.


Step Outside

By Christine Yaeger

Don’t lament.
The tomb of concrete spreadsheets will rake your soul,
but the barren tracks will be uprooted into flourishing.

Step outside.
The light will cascade off of ice crystals as the flame subsides its quest,
vanquished yet unconquered.

Whispering grass underneath the shadowed limbs
sunken roots, deep and abiding.

The thaw will awaken the unseen miracles
carrying messages of hope into another day.


From a Small Start

by Pauline Quale Bold

A child tentatively places a foot on a slippery rock. The second step is a bit more confident. One by one. Step by step. Rock by rock. An elated cry of accomplishment fills the air as she steps off the last rock, and onto the bank at the other side of the small stream flowing from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota.

It is hard to believe that this small babbling flow of fresh water will travel through the state of Minnesota, become a large river that will eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico and become salt water. Even though the Mississippi is not the longest river in the United States, it does have the largest drainage area in the country, and one of the largest in the world. Quite an accomplishment for something that starts from such a humble beginning.

Back at home in South Minneapolis, the child grows up just three short blocks from the river. She enjoys sitting and walking along the shore, watching it as the water level rises and falls as the seasons pass. Boats, large and small, pass through a series of locks and dams. The flow depends on the level of the water from the abundance or lack of rain and snow that leave their own kind of footprints on the river.

Just before leaving Minneapolis, the fingers of a small creek enter the big river. Its water is the ending of Minnehaha Creek not far from the beautiful falls a short distance from the point of entry into the Mississippi. The child spends many exciting days picnicking, hiking, and being thrilled by the fall of the water to the deep hole below. A hole so deep you cannot see the bottom.

Finally, just past Historic Fort Snelling, the muddier Minnesota River merges into the Old Miss. A distinct demarcation, visible from the 494-highway bridge. The cause? An overload of pollution that has dirtied the Minnesota for many years. The dirty brown of the Minnesota forms an odd curve as it begins to mingle with the blue-green of the Mississippi.

The child would sit along the shore, eyes closed, ears listening. Ghosts of Native dugout canoes, steamboats, and paddle wheelers fill the imagination. Sounds of canon and firearms echo loudly off the opposite banks. Cries of sorrow mournfully fill the air from when the Dakota were held there before being placed on reservations. Open eyes see sights of current day barges aided by tugboats, modern aluminum canoes, fishing and speed boats. Long gone are the ferries that transported travelers and goods across the mighty river, having been replaced by bridges, large and small.

The river never stays in one place. It is always on the move. A young girl grows up and spends three years working in one of the old buildings of the fort. The polo field outside the building now is silent. No sounds of horse’s hooves or shouts of bystanders remain. The roar of airplanes flying overhead is a constant sound. The river flows, and the girl moves on after getting married. Moves, but not far away, to raise her family.

Some things still remain unchanged. The river rises and falls. Eagles build their gigantic nests at the top of trees along the shore. They fish for the life-sustaining nourishment to raise their young. Human footprints lead to the place where they quietly stand on the shore, fishing lines in the water. Hoping for a fish or two to take the bate and provide a meal. Waterfowl float along on the current, enjoying the view. Turtles swim, unseen, until they come up for air. Otters frolic on the shore. Deer and other critters come to the river for a quiet drink of water. A mosaic of footprints etches the shore. Life goes on.

If the winter is cold enough, the river will freeze. All will be still as a quiet blanket wraps the river in white. Footprints, both human and animal, on the snow-covered icy river remind us activity still happens. One tentative step at a time. Years pass, but the river remains. It flows to the ocean, and disperses into the abyss of darkness at its final end.


River poem

by Alice Solheim

Even in the midst of Winter on a frozen, full moon night;
The mighty Mississippi dances, an illuminated, dancing delight.


Sense of Place

By Patricia Cummings

Look for the gray row houses with
The white trim,
The ones facing the river
On an island
With the French explorer’s name,
In the midst of the Mississippi.

Each unit looks toward downtown,
Leaf-screened in summer
Clear-lit and geometric in winter,
Federal Reserve on the opposite bank
Saved from sterility
By a radiant yellow sculpture.

My place is next to the railroad tracks
Where crews of two change shifts
At midnight,
For trains carrying coal and chemicals
From the west to the city.

My windows frame the river’s life,    
Gravel barges tugging through the locks
Paddleboats with prom queens,
And a rare, fool-hardy speedboat
Headed for the falls.

The current carries the usual flotsam,
Logs and geese
And once a body, moving South.

Raccoons whose ancestors were
Fair game for Ojibwe hunters,
Now share space with SUVs and Harleys,
While two old men share a bottle
Under the railroad bridge.


Tai Chi at Hidden Falls

By Patricia Cummings

In the dew-bejeweled grass
Six silver-haired women align with the river
Slowly moving with the current;

A small bright bird flits from tree to tree
Catching the early morning sunlight;

Two geese tend their goslings
Leading them to leftover picnic crumbs;

The school bus driver reads his newspaper
While the idling engine thrums a backbeat;

A lone bald eagle silently glides by
His golden eye scanning for sustenance;

A great gray heron wades in the shallows
On the same mission as the eagle;

A man and a woman launch their canoe
One powering and the other steering in synch;

The fingers of the silver women tingle
Taking in earth’s vibrations;

They gather in nature’s energy
Transferring it from fingers to foreheads;

The women sweep away life’s extremes
With mystic whispers of six healing sounds;

On the bank of the river
Yin and Yang find harmony.


Trickle and Trace

By John Thomas

Long before began the
Trickle and Trace
Building sur-e-ly through
A solemn human race
Very presence bring itself
Into this sacred place
Flow to an eye to bring
A smile upon a face

Rhythm to flow bring life to grow
A divine gesture worthy of a seek
Ponderous depth bearing weighty heft
Vista produce a Rose’ a la cheek

Our eyes be long gone in time
Longer it will stay
Next bend makes an s thiS mile
Flowing as it may


River poem

By Linda Stolte

The sun rises
and your snow glistens.
Silence before the noise breaks.

Leafless shrubs surround you
encircling your banks.

Buildings and bridge
climb heights
to oversee you.

But Mounds Park
commands the view
that tells you...

You are beautiful.

Our Mississippi.


Emil in the River

By Captain Bob Deck

When I see a photo of the Mississippi River around St. Paul it very often brings back a towboat memory. The view from Dayton’s Bluff in winter makes me remember a big adventure that lasted an extremely short amount of time. Right down there late winter or early spring of 1992 the towboat Lois E and the Sadie Mae were rafted alongside a tow of barges that had arrived in that fleet below the Lafayette Street Bridge.

The deckhands were taking a break to warm up in the galley of the Sadie. I had come down from the pilot house of the Lois E to join the crews for a few minutes and check on their condition. I made a mental note of the speed with which the current was gurgling around the boat hulls and the large chunks of ice spinning down river headed for St. Louis.

Once the break was over and the stiff frozen fingers had warmed a bit big Nick clapped his hands together and announced “Time to get back at her boys. That rigging ain’t gonna strip itself.”

The other three deckhands slowly gathered up their gloves and wool caps and made their way out the door onto the 3-foot wide gunwale a mere two feet above the cold river. Emil was first then me and then Nick. As soon as Emil’s feet hit the cold steel deck outside he floated away from me.

Well, at least it looked like he was floating. He experienced one of those slips where his feet went up in the air almost level with his head. A micro-second later he was gone. Nick and I went right to our knees on the deck and looked into the murky water and a cloud of steam where Emil had gone under.

It was probably less than another second and his head popped up. Together we snatched him out of the water and threw him back into the galley where he landed with a soggy thump on the floor. Someone slammed the door closed and five of us set to work getting his wet clothes off and a warm emergency fire blanket around him. One of the boys set a milk house heater in front of him and cranked it up to high heat.

No one said anything. We were waiting to hear from Emil who had come so close to becoming a short paragraph in the newspaper. Finally, he managed to sputter “D...d...d...damn. I l... l...l...lost my Sorrels.” He didn’t quite get why we all laughed. “They were b...b...b...brand new.”

Nick just slapped him on the back, “But at least you got a shot at getting old.”

The rest of the guys went out onto the tow to work in the freezing temperatures and, later, Emil went down to the engine room and put on his nearly dry clothes and soon after was back at work alongside his crewmates.