In May and June of 2008, The Cedar River, after days of torrential rain, broke through its restraints, and the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was suddenly plunged into a flood, destroying the city and displacing most of its inhabitants. The memory of this event permeates the pages of this edition of the Iowa review, and the journal cannot be read without feeling the loss that these people, and these writers, felt. So deep was their loss, and their shock, that stories and poems about the river fill each and every page, with nostalgia, sadness and anger. All manner of emotion can be found within The Iowa Review’s pages.
Guilt, perhaps not surprising, is felt by the survivors, the ones who are back to their lives despite the river’s attempts to ruin them. For example, Joe Blair cannot help but recall the beauty of destruction, but is surprised by his own reaction:
The days of the flood are the most beautiful days. I know that’s blasphemy. How could I say that when over one thousand city blocks in Cedar Rapids were under water? When the Quaker Oats plant shut down. When retired people who lived a mile from the Cedar River, so far from the river that they never had a fleeting thought of buying flood insurance, lost the largest investment of their lives and were forced, in some cases, to live on the streets? But it’s true. At the very moment the river, at the last second, changed its mind, and decided to fuck everything up, the sun broke through and the wind died down and there was a blindingly beautiful river where a city used to be.
Amy Leach, another victim of nature’s wrath, likens the caprice of the river to a dance: “if you have been frantically stationary, wishing to spin or to be spun but being suspended; there is music that will dissolve your anchors, your sanctuaries, floating you off your feet, fetching you away with itself.”
David Wagoner’s piece, “By a Creek,” also invokes the river. “It kept saying / I’m here. I wasn’t here / an instant ago, but now / I’m here and gone. I’m going / to be here again this moment, / and already I’m falling / out of the same place / I’m going to always be.” The beauty of this piece cannot be ignored, but it, too, can’t help but elicit responses of grief, and the frustration of the persistence of a river’s unstoppable flow.
Marvin Bell’s “The Book of the Dead Man (The River)” imagines a protector of the victims. The poem is filled with both pathos and hope: “The dead man stands on the banks of a river that overcame its banks. / He stands where the river has made a new road to ride. / He strides the shore and salutes those in boats looking to help, / the homeowners in rubber boots and the store owners / who carried their inventory on their backs.” Pattiann Roger’s “The Great Deluge and Its Coming” can be seen as somewhat of a companion piece to Bell’s, but it stands alone just as effectively, with its horror: “We were mewing / and choking, spitting / and barking in our plight, the bundle / of us in a jumble, struggling, shifting constantly, losing hold / in white water, breaking apart // carried away, found again. / . . . Direction was destiny.”
Other jewels in this collection are Fleda Brown’s “Northern Pike” and Laura Rigal’s “Watershed Days on the Treaty Line, 1836- 1839.” All the pieces in this collection of sadness are remarkable in their ability to rise above the water, and make themselves heard.