Falls First by Susan Briante


A Process Note

by Susan Briante

Underneath every fairytale: calculations of fear and frantic tallies of possibility.

I did not know the story of Vodianoy, a masculine water spirit, before Yuliya sent me her painting. In some tales, Vodianoy appears “as naked old man with a frog-like face.” In others, he’s a vagrant. He drowns and floods and enslaves his victims. He marries disinherited girls. In an act of mercy or cruelty? Some say when one of his wives goes into labor, he’ll go to the nearest village to find a midwife and pay her in silver and gold.

I wanted my poem to recreate an arithmetic of hope and anxiety, to capture the lack and promise that might have forced Vodianoy to surface shimmering like a coin or a blade.



            Falls First


Artwork courtesy of Yuliya Lanina.

Artwork courtesy of Yuliya Lanina.


                      The sun spun like a coin on edge.

                      Mostly we worried about money,
                      about currents and the catch and the value
                      of the homes we lived in that the bankers owned.

                      Mostly we worried about the future.

                      In forest time, a river unwinds like the hem of a fairy’s tulle dress,
                      but in our city hours, a river riots like a falcon, chides us
                      like an old bookkeeper
                      teaching us time and again we do not own it or what floats within.

                      We waded up to our ankles, knees, neck.
                      The moon pulls the current, a card trick, the moon’s up the river’s sleeve.

                      To control the current is to control time, is to control the exchange rate.

                      So we grabbed a girl,
                      by the wrist or waist, pulled her down
                      didn’t let go, didn’t have to pay her.

                      Heads or tails? The sun spun
                      away. Skin or scales?

                      We edged the ledger closer to shore.


                      By the banks or on a shoreline
                      a girl might learn about seduction,
                      what to reveal or hide,
                      might learn about trauma
                      and trade, what will flood, what currents will take
                      away, a girl might learn about pay and pay.

                      To drown is to be wrenched from your element, to be immigrant.

                      An older man, a young girl.

                      Water the color of sky
                      he looks like the sky
                      over her and under her at once

                      shows her how to unfurl like eel grass, like kelp.

                      At certain latitudes at certain moments a child might lift
                      her face to take in the rain as if it were light

                      but a river is not wrought from light.

                      Anything that lives on water’s surface knows how to stride, scurry, or improvise.
                      Anything that sinks below knows which bodies fall first.



Susan Briante’s most recent book The Market Wonders (Ahsahta Press) was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. The Kenyon Review calls it “masterful at every turn.” She is also the author of the poetry collections Pioneers in the Study of Motion and Utopia Minus (an Academy of American Poets Notable Book of 2011), both from Ahsahta Press. She is an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Arizona.