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There is elemental life in David Polk’s poems, intimate moments when it seems our remove from the natural world—fatal to it—can be bridged. It is the poetry of that connection in daily life and the imagination. The great river floods, a blue wasp sails dreamlike through the house. Suddenly a copperhead lies snake-thick across the hiker’s path.

The poet’s “mind is at once local and transcendent in its reach,” says the writer William Benton, and “local” here means the western end of Kentucky where the continent’s four great rivers join.”  The watershed’s birds and wildlife, too, are the book’s familiars.

The poems often slip seamlessly from narration to meditation. On the Ohio, which is immense here, the poet’s canoe gains “on a lily pad broken loose and beside it/ a mouse—pale belly up—no longer resisting/ the forward, the careless and incessant forward.”  

The overall sequence of the book follows the seasonal recurrence, and gradually, as it unfolds, a life-span is implied.  Though most of the poems center on our relation to the natural world, there are those too that explore the world of the poet’s family and other loves.


In Drinking the River, David Polk has turned the landscape and waterways of West Kentucky into elegant music. The tone of these poems is distinctive — cool, intense, calm. I feel I’m seeing familiar sights—trumpet vines, deer, crows, squirrels—for the first time. Polk is a river guide leading us on a wondrous journey.

—Bobbie Ann Mason, fiction writer and memoirist 

The poems condense the beautiful complexity of the daily round. To me they are facts of nature, like a tree or a river. Without sentimentality or excess, these poems convince us the earth and the humans who live on it are worth our attention and care. 

—James Cummins, poet and curator of the Elliston Collection of Poetry 

These fine and reflective poems occur at a threshold between the semi-rural surroundings of his hometown, on the Ohio, a mile wide at this juncture, and a mind at once local and transcendent in its reach. Made up of descriptive elegance and meditative strength, Polk’s work follows a compass of its own, virtually untouched by the vogues of the poetry world. A separate river that has run a long way underground surfaces in this rich book. 

—William Benton, poet and novelist 

About the Author

David Polk grew up beside the Ohio River—at the mouth of the Tennessee — where he lives now. He studied with Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport at the University of Kentucky, and has an M.F.A. from the writing program at San Francisco State University. He has taught writing and literature at many schools including the University of Cincinnati, Eastern Kentucky University, Portland Art Museum School, and served as curator of the Elliston Collection of Poetry. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, Cincinnati Poetry Review, and Epoch among others. The author of four books of military history, he has reviewed books and art for the Louisville Courier-Journal and other papers. He lived for years in the Shawnee Forest and at the mouth of the Cumberland River.