Poet’s Corner: Bill Vartnow

The Petaluma River holds a great deal of Sonoma County’s history in its sooty depths, especially for those who grew up in Petaluma. It flows 13 miles down to the marshy, brackish mouth of San Pablo Bay, and has often been in flux or in a state of change.

Once, it was the hub between San Francisco and everything north. Ferries filled with passengers steamed up its banks, and barges packed with the butter, eggs and local produce like Sebastopol’s bittersweet Gravenstein apples steamed back. hese days, the river’s surface is only written on by the soft caress of sea winds and a few small craft.

Bill Vartnow, a Sonoma County Poet Laureate Emeritus and a resident of Petaluma, uses the Petaluma River as the central metaphor in his striking and unusual poem, “Rivers.” Because Vartnow forgoes a few grammatical rules (such a capital letters) and because he uses space instead of end stop punctuation, the words of the poem flow down the page as fast as the river itself.

“Rivers” tells us the story of Vartnow’s heritage as it is sewn into the river: where he was born, where he and his cousin played. Into this he weaves the natural history of the river: the frogs croaking, the crickets chirping and the tide rising and falling beyond time’s banks.

In the end, when he is faced with the unthinkable change of losing his mother, Vartnow turns to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ Flux Principle: “You could not step twice into the same river.” Reading Vartnow’s poem helps us see how life, like the river, is a place of great beauty as well as a place of constant flux where we must love what we can’t hold onto.



by Bill Vartnow

both my mother & I

were born at 6th & I Sts.

this river ebbs

& flows

ebbs & flows

gets dredged for silt

so boats can come up from the bay

I remember

being young, under 10

crossing the highway

(now boulevard)

with my cousin (now dead)

walking down to the bend

where the freeway overpass

now crosses the river

we were sneaking away

in search of hoboes

- an exotic breed of adult

we found an old campfire

with cans opened, charred

by the river

this abandoned campsite

- proof

I sat on a log there

my blood flowing faster

it was the first time

I saw the river

(it was called “the river” then)


this river runs salty

reflects this town


it can’t help it

something about the sun’s magic

as salt crystals pick up mooncasts

we hear croaking frogs

chirping crickets

birds, boats, barges

trucks with their hay bales piled high

honk as they turn onto the boulevard

at the top of the bay

the tide rises

the tide falls

& though this river has no inland source

old Heraclitus’ principle

still applies here

- the constant motion

equally at home in the town at its margins

I remember

the whale who visited Petaluma

in my mother’s last week

people were trying to turn it back to sea

no, the whale wanted to see

to make this connection

before it died

& it did

& it disappeared the day she died

I always suspected my mother’s complicity

having been her Jonah

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is Sonoma County’s 2016 Poet Laureate. Contact her at

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