Falling Is the Deadest Thing (a cento)


September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Cate McGowan


All day long, we are in love with water.
I don’t want to say anything. What
of love’s austere and lonely offices 
late in a spring that has no age?
I think this year I will wait for the white lilacs, 
for the grass to catch fire.

I glimpse you from the window, striding toward the river
that carries me through the clear day. 
I hear someone, hear the splash, groan,   
where, against a background of chirping birds, 
no one is blessed with deafness here.
Heavier things are up and falling
when the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
water, stone, wind,     
homesickness that guides the plovers.

Once, I nudged a canoe through that water—
what did I know, what did I know?
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing.
I didn’t fall in love. I fell through it:
a concordance of person, number, voice.
Later, on the day you fell through a cloud, 
it felt right to be up this close in tight wind.

No, says water in that limpid voice,
nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods.
It seems, for a moment, the river ceases flowing
before I get too sad.


Lines borrowed:

Line 1 “Water” by Anne Sexton 
Line 2 “Nothingness” by Dawn Lundy Martin
Lines 7 and 25 “Summer Near the River” by Carolyn Kizer
Lines 3 and 17 “Those Winter Sundays” By Robert Hayden
Lines 4 and 15 “Variation on a Theme” by W. S. Merwin
Lines 5 and 26 “Leaving Another Kingdom” by Gerald Stern
Line 6 “Ritual for Ash” by Cindy Williams Gutiérrez
Lines 13 and 24 “Digging” By Seamus Heaney
Lines 9 and 16 “Skin Canoes” by Carolyn Forché 
Line 10 “Water Calligraphy” by Arthur Sze
Line 11 from “Coda to History: It Is Not As If” by Kwame Dawes
Line 12 “Water, Winter, Fire” by Marvin Bell
Line 14 “Water, Stone, Wind” by Octavio Paz
Line 18 “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy
Line 19 and 21 “Love Letter (Clouds)” by Sarah Manguso
Line 20 “You, Therefore” by Reginald Shepherd
Line 22 “Lines Depicting Simple Happiness” by Peter Gizzi
Line 23 “Say Water” by Rad Smith


Cate McGowan is an essayist, poet, fictionist, and author of two books. She won the Moon City Short Fiction Award for her debut short story collection, True Places Never Are, which was also a finalist for the Lascaux Short Fiction Collection Prize. Her debut novel, These Lowly Objects, appeared in 2020. McGowan’s work has been published in numerous literary outlets, including Glimmer Train, Norton’s Flash Fiction International, Crab Orchard Review, Hypertext Magazine, Shenandoah, Stone Coast Review, Vestal Review, and Tank. A native Georgian and current, reluctant Floridian (Heat! Hurricanes! Alligators! Scary politics!), McGowan has an MFA and is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies.



One thought on “Falling Is the Deadest Thing (a cento)

  1. Kathleen Calby says:

    I love centos. You get to use other people’s great lines, but shuffle them like a tarot deck and see what they reveal in a new way. (I also really enjoy recognizing some lines and feeling darn smart!) Thanks for this one.

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