The Bow

I only know rivers


Waters elongated to the unrumpled recitatif

of endless land

The Bow knows

Has tongued and grooved the firmament, baby,

of this Last Best


The Bow knows

Stoney and Sarcee

The Bow knows Blood

The Buffalo spilled beyond its banks


The Bow knows Crowfoot

his Belly

his Old Man

softens his reservations

curses his Mary


The Bow knows


trickles over his chipped away Chippewa,

black and bisected by befuddled namings

by bemused memory

by his own fickle fur trading

With us? With them? Negro? Ojibwe?

Exposed by history? Or submerged below?


No ocean.

No tide.

No salt.

No sea. Too flat. Too far to see.


I only knows rivers, baby,

but what I only knows disturbs in me

Dive in
  1. This poem so lushly tuned for sound. Which passage is your favourite example of its use of alliteration?
  2. A number of common words, “Bow” included, appear prominently in title-case throughout the poem. What do a lot of them have in common? What sets some apart?
  3. “The Bow” refers to the Bow River first, but “bow” is a rich homonym. Which of its meanings do you find most interesting to play with in the poem, and why?
  4. The beauty and multiple meanings of “softens his reservations / curses his Mary” is so halting. How do you interpret the passage?
  5. The poem is so booming with sound and poetic devices, there’s lots of space to have fun reciting it. But there’s a challenge in those six rhetorical questions. Would you recite them in the same tone? How might you modulate them? Do you imagine a call and response? Play around with the options as you recite the poem, both alone and with friends.
  6. One way to interpret this poem’s form and direction: “I only know” becomes “I only knows” once the poem has presented what “The Bow knows.” Bouncing off that approach, compose your own two versions of a first-person verb phrase, like Bickersteth’s “I only know(s) rivers,” and have another subject deploy the verb you chose between those two phrases, like “The Bow knows...” Consider adding to the last instance of your first-person phrase, as Bickersteth has with his poem.


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Bibliographical info

Bertrand Bickersteth, "The Bow" from The response of weeds : poems. Copyright © 2020 by Bertrand Bickersteth. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Source: The response of weeds : poems (Bertrand Bickersteth / NeWest Press, 2020)


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