What Water is Said?
A Review Essay
Elegies for Water.|
Phillip Lee Williams.
Mercer University Press, 2009.
103 pages, $20 (hardcover).
Swimming Woman: Poems from Montana.|
Finishing Line Press, 2009.
29 pages, $14 (paperback).
My Floating Mother, City.|
Yumiko Tsumura & Samuel Gomes, translator.
New Directions, 2009.
103 pages, $14.95 (paperback).
Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea.|
Elizabeth Winslow & Dunya Mikhail, translator.
New Directions, 2009.
211 pages, $16.95 (paperback).
"Best to be like water / always useful / never difficult / settling in low-lying places"
(Daode Jing, translated by Thomas Meyer)
These days I pay increasing attention to whether or not a poet takes up space rather than producing a space of affordance. By this last I mean something like the "inner space" Rilke wrote about, an opening for ourselves, for others, an open in which we can say I am without taking up the space of others, without writing our sense of the sun over everything.
Is being like water to be like that? A language that solves, sparkles, passes through, goes lower. A clarity, could be theorized as absence or silence, or perhaps light. Flow.
Would a close read of a disparate collection of poetic projects aspect to water give me a way to answer?
I tell my students, "Each of us has what I call a special interiority built out of the traces of this particular body-sense material history whose seeing marks a path no other eye ever takes." We could call it depth or make it watery deep. But how do we make the long way from the difference between depth and surface, to the ways we are read, what others make of a world and the words "Cleveland" or "Massachusetts"?
How do these become rooms for others? And what are we trying to say by saying water?
The water in Phillip Lee Williams' Elegy for the Water is Wildcat Creek in north-central Georgia, some sixty miles outside Atlanta. Compared to Atlanta, this is country, but the poet's voice is not Frank Stanford's Arkansas. This is someone who has the money to live out here. So, suburban country. Commuter bedroom country. It is nice out here, and you can breathe, go out to look for box turtles with your children, pick blueberries with Sal.
In the poems, acres of woods get said. The outdoors gives you lots of words—broomstick, wire, oak—and Williams chooses his words well, for color, particularly in the middle-third of what are mostly page-long or two-page poems. But none of it is very specific to Oconee County, and too many are from a lexicon of things by which these feelings get rehearsed. In "Sketch for my Last Words," Williams ends:
Poets have to work to win the right to use a word. Williams seemed to already know how to lose his wife, the world, his life. I think other words than the one's he uses here can come to us when these losses happen, and I wanted to know about those more difficult solutions.
Coyla Barry's Swimming Woman: Poems from Montana is, ostensively, from the same paint box as Williams' volume. Barry has worked as a research librarian at UNC Chapel Hill, and the Montana outdoors she writes about is not too far from an old ranch house owned by her husband. It's land that has human paths, that folks go out into fairly comfortably, it's only a mile or two from a road. Barry's poems, however, have an immediacy and place, a time, that Williams' poems lack. The observations are precise, and when there is a shift to the larger social comment, we circle back. Thought does take hold of the abstract—it will no matter how hard we stare, and if we are honest we need to speak about "time" and "age" as much as cattle guard or veery—but we are brought back: "You mutter your monologue to the brush / closing in as the track rises from the flat. / It's a hard climb and you have no breath left." Barry observes. This is a chapbook, modest, brief. Barry has spent more time among intellectuals and has a polish (not unlike Williams) that Niedecker or Dickinson lacks; but she has the edge of her sister's bite, a willingness to let the universal vast hang for a moment on a small seen thing said no further than "the wire eases to the horizontal." Bare spit. The gal the Navaho call "Salt Woman."
My Floating Mother City, by Kazuko Shiraishi, is the second collection of her work published by New Directions (the first was Let Those Appear, New Directions, 2002). Shiraishi was born in Vancouver in 1931 but moved back to Japan with her family in 1938. She gained notoriety in the 1960s for her jazz-based, explicitly erotic poetry (she was called "the penis poet"). Both of the collections published by New Directions, however, are from her later work and have an elegiac, reflective quality. The beat has slowed to ambient, and the poems are less about the gravity and pull of the body in sex, than the way we hold our self and bodies lightly, and, at times, lose them.
What floats here is not water, but matter become tissue-thin as phantom, come apart in fragments. Water is a trigram, what's left as inkblot in the air. We dowse from text to thought to a fragment that is felt. The well is dry and echoes—we hear reports of water but lay against stone.
Unlike Williams or Barry, this is an unapologetically literate poetics in conversation with a bric-a-brac of Japanese fox-magic dreams, Greek Mythology, Buddhism, and Ulysses. In one poem "Last Night I Met 250 Thousands Years Ago," "a girl carries ice from Greenland from which comes 250 thousand year old air, into a room with a paper lantern in Takanawa where the hostess's ears are as large as Dumbos" and all this is her way of telling us something of the weight of being a girl on Peach Blossom Festival, the day parents pray that their daughters develop like peach blossoms. We travel a long way to get the point, the places that still stick or need to somehow be said.
Shiraishi has been writing a long time, and you feel that in the ease and comfort she has with form. The poems are not ladders or looms, lines are longer than a traditional page width and frequently she creates internal enjambment by leaving extra spaces between words, a formal move that echoes her loyalty to an episodic rhythm. Sophisticated stuff, gone beyond this world but still reporting back.
For each of the writers I've considered, water and fluidity are marks of the stubborn persistence of deeper orders that vitalize (and at times displace and dissolve) the force of the quotidian. The title of Dunya Mikhail's Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea makes use of the Arabic and Sufi, tropes that equate the sea with a vast oneness in being. But what is striking about the piece as a whole is the absence of water, either in its usual locations (rain, lake, river, well) or as a quality of association and lyric.
Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi journalist, teacher, and writer who emigrated to the United States in 1996 following the first Iraq war. Diary is just that, a long poem in two parts, the first covering the period between the Gulf War and her departure from Iraq, the second covering the period from her arrival in the United States in 1996 to the birth of her daughter in 2007. This is topical material—the Gulf Wars rent hundreds of thousands of lives and thus demands testimony.
I appreciate witness—it seems sometimes to be the only meaningful political act available—and I wanted to like this book. The violence done by U.S. ignorance and prejudice about Arabs and Arab culture is extraordinary, and, as has been the case with all of our favorite demonic others (Indians, Blacks, Russian Commies), there is a need for thoughtful redress.
This long poem, however, is at odds with itself. On the one hand it demands attention given the political currency of its contexts. And all the pieces are here. Bombs fall. Lovers are separated and then, in exile, reunited. And yet it also withholds, refusing the work of justification, and, in the end, telling us more about the relentlessly disaffected nature of diaries than about the way violence meets air and heart. There's a bit of bait and switch, a push away. Even though this is a diary, there's also the sense, because of the way voice and measure are used, that we're being told to just leave her alone.
Maybe that's why there's so little water and so much sand in this poem. I wonder though, if the refusal to share here is an effect of the violence of the war—I am ready to respect that—or an effect of the way that, in this era, an exile can imagine herself what Appiah calls a "cosmopolitan nomad." Not just torn loose from the trees one grew up among, but pulled up out of the waters of relation to lie, like something Magritte might have painted, in an air that has lost its earth.
I started out from water, but despite the titles, it is hard to say that the poets looked at here have "been like water" or that the poems they stretch out afford us space. It's not necessarily a poet's job to do that, but, as long as a poem makes space, it has to answer for the space it takes up. Maybe we shouldn't be given more than the long stretch of bare red desert strip mall scarp Mikhail leaves us—it is, after all, the lot of many—and maybe we could never have more than the floating and vanishing, evanescent lacunas left by Shiraishi's touch. In any case, only the latter starts out low enough to really be like water, and she's been drawn up evaporate into fragmented airs.
I keep thinking there is more to do than evoke and name, more to place than myth or matter. Water runs through it all and insists we know more than our province or call. We need a poetry that starts again to be real river or rain.