783: The Beginning of the Beginning

783: The Beginning of the Beginning

783: The Beginning of the Beginning


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I am often amazed by how the history of humanity is tied to the history of rivers. How many cities are built along the riverways because it offered a way of commerce and transportation. And how many rivers have become demarcations of territory, sites of war and conquest. This is my side of the river and that’s yours. What a concept. As if anyone could own a river, or even a riverbank.

When I lived in New Mexico for a brief time, I’d walk along the Rio Grande everyday and it was hard to be near that steady, powerful river, and not think of my ancestors who had crossed it. It was hard to think about the painful legacy of death for those who attempted to cross it and never lived to see the farther shore. It’s not the river’s fault, is it? The river never decided to be a border. Never woke up one day and decided it was owned.

Rivers also remind us how we are connected, that what happens upstream, happens downstream, and what happens in the river will flow to the ocean. With all the creeks and watersheds and tributaries weaving and veining through the land, somehow, instead of honoring them, bowing down to them, we have used them for our needs and turned them into sites of violence.

Today’s poem is about how the history of us is also the history of rivers.

The Beginning of the Beginning
by Phuong T. Vuong

Who decides where a river starts? When are there enough 
sources, strong currents and water wide enough for its name?

In Colorado, the Chama begins in smaller creeks and streams,
flows into New Mexico to form the Rio Grande, splitting Texas

and Mexico (who decided?) and moves deeper south. I think
a few of these thoughts by a creek on a beaming hot day,

as water rips by in rapids propelled, formed in mountains far above.
The water icy even in this summer heat. People grin

some false bravery. They sit in tubes and dip into the tide
and be carried away. I think of drowning. Of who sees water

as fun. Who gets to play in a heatwave. Who trusts
the flow. Migrants floating in the Rio Grande haunt me, so 

I think of families tired of waiting, of mercy that never comes,
of taking back Destiny. The rivers must have claimed more

this year. Knows no metering but the rush of its mountain
source’s melt. A toddling child follows her father into water’s

pull. Think of gang’s demands, of where those come from. Trickles
of needs meeting form a flow of migrants. Think of where

it begins. Think of the current of history—long, windy, but 
traceable and forceful in its early shapes.

"The Beginning of the Beginning" by Phuong T. Vuong. Used by permission of the poet.