It has always snowed,
white falling like words all day and night
speaking stones. And stars.
Of beginning in fire-hot galaxies.
In the quarantine of snow
we sleep and dream of radishes,
thousands of radishes in dark furrows,
their green ruffled caps.
For forty days and nights angels come
whisper into the ears of sleepers.
The Alpine glaciers will be gone
in forty years. If a thing disappears,
does its name disappear?
If the world came into being by naming
what does extinction mean?
The glacial mass of language
slides down mountains picking up debris,
words scoop out ravines and valleys,
a moraine of words,
the names of things ground down.
Glacial stars in the early white.
Some mornings before dawn,
the still-dark is a presence, a protection.
Stars bound off the roof.
The moon is invisible,
and all things begin in fire,
something that returns and returns.
Cary Waterman, Book of Fire.
Perhaps we can agree that our hope for each book of poetry issued into the contentious environment of contemporary American arts and letters is that it is worthy, a gift to its own milieu–that it manifests a brilliant sensibility unafraid to confront self, world, or soul.
Such a gift is Book of Fire and such a poet is Cary Waterman, professor at Augsburg College in St. Paul, and long an admired Midwestern poet.
Waterman may be justifiably proud of her collection as it crowns decades of achievement and the honing of her craft—publication in journals, grants and awards, the collection When I Looked Back You Were Gone, Holy Cow! Press, a Pitt Prize-winning volume, The Salamander Migration and Other Poems, a chapbook from the Minnesota Writers Publishing House.
This physically gorgeous volume (an impressionistic painting of blazing autumn trees by the poet’s late husband graces the cover), recently issued from the estimable Nodin Press, Minneapolis, is organized into five untitled sections each introduced with brief quotes by by H.D., Milosz and others.
Section I begins with a sequence of poems turning on the Demeter-Persephone myth; these focus on the burdens and terrible conflict laid upon Persephone—her obsession with her dark lover Hades and that as Demeter’s daughter, she must ever leave him to return spring/life to the earth.
The majority of the work in this section is structured in a progression of indented lines so that one is forced to slow down one’s travel over the page, to take in a deliberate and oracular telling and the questions offered up in revisiting the myth.
And these are indeed startling, beautifully wrought, carefully chiseled poems; in Persephone’s Return the speaker asks, “What is it that propels the girl toward dark?”;in Persephone in Hades, “It’s a girl’s job to go/to Hades/..How he’d wake her in the dark/his winter need/flesh/on flesh for warmth.”
In Persephone on Mount Oberg (on the north shore of Lake Superior) a further question: “How did she get here/the overlook where she sees into distance/travels her breath/remembers winter/when/her mother wept like death? …the sign says: stay back from the edge: or you will be ..falling/ falling.”
Mount Oberg is a place of respite for Persephone: “She walked through fire to get here/rock face lichen/blue iris lake/left desire, seduction behind…”
A sense of Persephone’s escape from her own destiny, and the implication that this is the speaker’s need as well, comes again in the poem Salvation, beginning with the poignant, “How fiercely trees grow in the north….the edge of things favors wildness…Mist burns her history from the dark water.”
While these poems ambitiously mine a mythical descent into darkness, the speaker/Persephone is in fact climbing up, out away from the dangers of love, reconnecting to and sustained by “the world”—the manifestations all around her of endurance and survival.
In the Garden is long and lyrical and rich with epiphany: “Everything needs help standing.” “It is almost/ August, the pause between bounty/and death.” The speaker feels…”. “…the high thin promise of/a whole life inside her body”—yet–… “ She is still that same girl,/her hair on fire.” In the fourth section: “Last light on lilies…What is there finally but gratitude?”. The mourning dove is “a peaceful bird with all manner of secrets/and hidden darkness.”
Infiammati Fire Circus relocates the myth: “Begin the reign of flame/Seats available next to Demeter/Pyrotechnics… Dancing girls/Shadow puppets/Aerialists on fire,” showing forth the mythical burning in a different context and resolving Persephone’s fate as follows: “She did not die/Remember this/ She did not die.”
The poem Persephone at the Spa is a tour d’ force: “You prepare for him again,/moist cotton patches/sucking light/over startled eyes….The esthiologist says:/hydrate, hydrate,/applies Ylang ylang,/love aphrodisiac/for the wedding,/the winter dark.”
Another exquisite lyric poem follows Descent—in six sections – turning on these lines: “Crow calls in this early light./She tells what we are rushing toward./The king of darkness stole/the girl of summer as she picked/wildflowers in the meadow,/ the earth opening, taking her down.”
The final stanzas of this poem make an ascendant peace with darkness and its loverly allure, emerging once more from their Hades axis: “Late October light comes filtered through/the white blinds of the bedroom,/a peace in this at last,/no cloying August brightness/…But the light, this last light… But still the light, it is lovely in its going, playing blues on the window blinds,/tossing up leaves to Mr. Bones.”
In the poem At the Minnesota State Fair the speaker contends “All girls want to be Persephone,” illuminating the sensuality of adolescence, how we are magnetized, pulled toward the Other and danger, even early, the boys in the show barns wearing their jeans on “butterfly” pelvises–and again the sense of mortality, its very immanence in that which seems most alive: “The sow in her pen/sees the white wind..coming/listens for the little man/to sing out…her name.”
The net effect of the poems in this section of Book of Fire is that fate is a conflagration, that all things are subsumed in the fires of existence…and, implicit, that one must not flinch in confronting them or enduring them. The work of the poet becomes clearer: it is a true re-membering, reconstruction and rebuilding after shattering, after being burned and burned down.
In fact, crafting the quest narrative of this book, delineating the journey we each make through our our torments, our resolutions, our epiphanies, Waterman’s referents are the survival messages of the natural world, again and again her speaker remarking on the processes of coming into being and fading out of it, how easily the life-cycle is born even by “the sow in her pen.” The beautiful Winter Quarantine is the crown jewel of this theme.
If Section I of the work re-imagines an overarching mythology of existence, Section II makes that mythology particular, even personal for the speaker. In the poem Writing in Bed the speaker says, “I sleep in my mother’s coffin./I just can’t leave her alone.” Her mother has said, “I don’t want anyone looking at me/when I’m dead” but the daughter disobeys, out of love and grief: “..I hung fast to her feet/as if to hold her back.” The descent of the mother into the grave, “..unseen into the ground,/down to the narrow space between cement walls,” reverses the Persephone story and it is now the daughter who has been abandoned to live on.
In Bonfire the speaker immolates the chaff of existence, shedding “skins, papers, check registers…directions for the electric waffle maker…” to do away with the old and its many burdens, to cleanse the soul: “She doesn’t own much./Only her long legs stretched out,/bone pencils writing the weather.”
The gorgeous love poem If It Hadn’t Been Summer turns on regret: “…if she hadn’t felt the way/her heart opened/its icy harness stretching/..loosening…”, in a movement to “..the next time it would be winter/she’d be pregnant/not able to keep up as he plunged ahead/through all that deep snow.” In the poem Honeysuckle the poet writes: “Mother, because we forgive the dead/almost everything, in fact rewrite/our entire history with them…so that it softens like an old scab in salt water…”, she drops a discussion with her daughter over whether a flower is a honeysuckle or a columbine, the poem closing with the recollection of a moment with an old lover who picked a columbine for her in the wake of lovemaking.
These lyrical, beautiful lines come at the end of the poem Storm Warnings:
At the end of the day what have I done? Seen a rainbow.
Watched for tornadoes north of here. Heard jets rush in
before the line of storm. A cardinal in church feathers sits
under the big linden. I want to go with him out of the
world of memory and desire. My glass on the table begins
to shake. Now the table is rocking and the red alarm of
weather radio blinks like a blind man.”
Indeed, at the end of the day what have we done, we who send the sensibility out like an unhooded falcon to see into existence, so compelled—and born to it – to write it all down.
In Lake Nokomis, the speaker sees two obese lovers swimming. There is such a paucity of stunning, startling and capable figurative language in contemporary poetry it is a delight to read these words:
they take turns
carrying each other
within the small confines
laid out for swimming.
He lifts and cradles her
as if she were a delicate parcel of pastry
wrapped and tied with string..
Waterman’s poems are finally honed observations…carrying emotion beyond the instant of recognition to an exactitude of statement, as in White Horse, Kauai:
At the edge of everything
rip tides, currents,
rogue waves with no
sense of responsibility.
Return the waves to the sky.
Disambiguation is a poem of startling intensity and beauty, moving from inference to inference, drawn first in the course of meditation on cardinals, “…apostle of gold safflower seeds/like the garlands of safflowers found in the tomb of/Tutankhamen…”; nearly clairvoyant imagery follows as the speaker applies the recurring image of the cardinals to the meaning of “truth,” of words themselves, in “..this kingdom of relations.”
This poem stands out in the book as a diamond at the epicenter; the poetic insight/emotion and the intellect work in nearly flawless concert.
But again, one asks, what sustains the speaker, the speaking poet, this woman poet: to what does she return, take in to herself?
Section III of Book of Fire answers this question in part, as the speaker contends with the duality of the rich natural world and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Undeniably, place and the rich familiarity of locale anchors these poems, but they put out into the seas of the tough questions again and again: In January 31, 2003, “Before bed, I went out into the January dark, afraid of war./I looked for the raccoon that appeared here two nights ago,/down from her leafy nest to hunt for food…..Outside the raccoon snuffles through the dark.”
In Lake Superior Spring, an exulting moment, Persephone returning:
Suddenly I can hear the ice!
At first, I think it’s a boat,
but everything is frozen for miles out.
It’s the ice I hear,
All night under moonlight
The ice melts,
rubs bones against
the dark wind,
breaststrokes toward shore.
This gorgeous long poem exemplifies the attunement of the poet to the world, so intensified and deep she writes that she hears the ice, “alive,” rubbing bones against the wind. But it is clear that war encroaches on the psyche, creating perturbations that threaten one’s very sanity, as in the following:
When my mother-in-law died in her chair,
her TV on full blast to CNN’s bombing of Baghdad,
her head slumped suddenly to her chest,
blood pooling in her right cheek,
a brusing that would not go away.
The dichotomy of comparative safety, being safe enough to live without vigilance, to be filled by the natural world in spring against the backdrop of war on the other side of the world comes through as an intense dichotomy in this section.
Moreover, it is hard to write a good anti-war poem in the sense that unless one has been on the front lines, asserting the impact of war can seem gratuitous– but certainly in sections of these poems the poet shows forth the terrible irony of our on-living even as we killed in Baghdad. The speaker ably extrapolates the dirty business of war in her attunement to the casualties of the natural i.e. not man-made and not-at-war world: The Mice is a tour d’ force and a classic Waterman poem, the keen eyes of the speaker like lasers, and in a litany of comprehension: “…she found four dead mice/in their nest of dirt and fur/all with their small ears pointed like pilgrims/toward the trunk of the old cottonwood….now where the grave was there is a space/in the clump of iris,/darkness, an open mouth.”
In Dream of the Vietnamese Orphans, Waterman writes:
We try to fix our mistakes but they stretch out behind us
like phosphorus. Those babies lifted up on fumes,
jet fuel burning behind them,
we would take them
to mothers and sisters,
no wives even,
the pool of their mothers’ blood
counting for nothing.
How artfully, powerfully is captured our collective war-making folly in “ We try to fix our mistakes but they stretch out behind us/like phosphorus.”
The indelibly painful confrontation with atrocity continues in the poem Execution:
Yesterday, a young man was beheaded in Iraq,
a translator, blindfolded, kneeling.
He understood everything the masked executioner said
before the final word of the sword.
Rocking her granddaughter, the speaker continues,
I get up and lay her in the crib.
She sighs once before turning to sleep
like all the babies of the world
who have done the human work of this day.
The fires of war are perhaps at a low burn from time to time, but this poem reiterates that that in our contemporaneity we are positioned between the comforts and beauties we find in daily life and cannot reconcile these even in language, with such a thing as the beheading of the translator dying by the “final word of the sword.” In Failure, these words:
In my dream I am asleep/
in the old car. My father drives his Studebaker,
my head resting on his thigh.
Awake I go through the morning papers.
Bodies will never be found.
Star matter now. Ash matter.
Something raps the bowl of my heart.
Again, it is not easy to write of war; to do it authentically it more than raps the bowl of the heart. The poems in this section delve into the ash and mud to resurrect the truth, undoubtedly for the poet, at personal cost.
The poems in Section IV of Book of Fire open with a quote from the Midwestern poet Bill Holm; these poems arise from the time the poet spent in Iceland. How richly exquisite and assuaging are these lines from Midnight Sun, Iceland:
I haven’t seen the dark for two weeks.
Daylight at one a.m.
and the mind does not think of night,
the absence of darkness,
does not miss it as if
it could stay light forever,
maybe what God meant when he said
Let there be light
separated day from night,
the waters divided….
And of the mountain ahead: at three a.m. it is the color of birth water,
rose aureole of breast.
The immediacy of the journey the speaker makes through new territory here is amplified by use of the first person in these poems. They feed us with their beauty, place us alongside the poet/speaker as she records “the absence of darkness.” Here the world is inverted and there is a beautiful exactitude driven by a nearly mystical compassion in this section as in Polar Bear, written after the first polar bear arriving on the coast of Iceland in a number of years had been shot—
….he stood up
as the county-designated bear hunters
approached with rifles from the highway.
He smelled the new beast coming toward him,
something sweet and fat.”
The phrase “new beast” to describe humankind is as pointed and on target as rifle fire—we are the new beasts, with our tallow and sweetness—how terrible, that we do not recognize nor embrace, as it were, our own animal nature, the polar bear as our very brother.
In Holar, Iceland, in the chapel a “lithe-limbed Jesus hangs on his cross.” One sees the long pale limbs exactly this way, in this instant, this moment of apperception, our darker natures having wrought the very crucifixion, in a sense.
The brutality of the life and death drama the speaker wrestles with is softened in Economy, in a beautiful reciprocity of eider-duck and down collector, beginning with this startling image:
The eider-ducks are nesting by the Arctic Sea in old rubber car
tires that have been set out for them by the down collectors
who identify their tires with small, colored flags…”
In The Skull Waterman is at her best, bearing witness to finding a sheep’s skull and taking it with her as she continues her visit in Iceland, making her peace with it as icon and totem: .
After a long day of travel,
She rests her head on a blue geothermal pipe,
Wants her own terrycloth robe.
In the Iceland poems, the speaker is surrounded by an exotic, unfamiliar world in which everything is beyond human control; the bear cannot be saved, nor can anything else, in truth; hence, the retrieval of the sheep-skull, nurturing and carrying it with her :.
…Finally, we say goodbye outside the airport.
I can’t take her with me
no matter how much I have fallen
for her dreamy eye sockets,
her toothy, innocent grin.
We would not have the same perception of the grimace of the human skull—again this tenderness toward the natural world and encountering its innocence and vulnerability:
At the Culture House in Reykjavik
Outside the Culture House, it rains
all day on the billboard of children’s faces,
on the cod in the harbor,
the swans in Tjornin Lake,
on all giving and taking in this hard landscape,
edge of the world where light begins.
The poems in this section hone in on the startling, the unfamiliar, the exotic—such has been the benefit for the poet of displacing herself; she sees the world with fresh eyes, looking deeply into the narratives of survival there.
I could not stop for every waterfall
for every ewe with twins like furry bullets dancing on grassy fields
because I could not stop
for every ice-blue mussel shell
for every golden hair of seaweed
for every cloud
for every sheep skull…
…I sluiced like the waterfalls
sliding everywhere to the sea.
Of course these lines are reminiscent of “I could not stop for death”—again the intimate and witnessing voice, the voice of telling and longing: the speaker has taken in this fierce, frigid and beautiful world and given voice to it in poems of unerring lyricism and power.
The final section of Book of Fire evokes a wiser Persephone, she who has contended with flicker and bonfire and is the rueful matriarch survivor. In the stunningly beautiful and evocative The Memory Palace, Waterman conjectures: “Memory, the first loss implying all others. After memory goes: then love, affection /the past thin in the thin places, a run in a nylon stocking:/the space once introduced grows and grows,/…the past nodding off, cigarette still lit.”
In the same poem, evoking the introductory and auguring narrative of the collection: “Hades. Shall we go in?/Flashing lights and siren. And what sweet/food and drink shall we have in the darkness? Pomegranate seeds,/red-stained fingers, lips marking us chosen: yes, let us go,/but do not drink from Lethe,/river of forgetfulness.”
This poem stands out as an epic in the collection, moving through history, describing the memory palace of Simonides, and as taught to the Chinese in the 16th century as a repository for cultural recollection, moving back and forth from archetypal to personal memory until the poem itself consecrates the very act of re-membering, asking then:
What are we if not all memory? What if she did forget
everything, her mind emptying like Pandora’s Box?
What if she were blowing away, scraps of paper down the street
chased after, almost captured: the whimsy wind lifts,
blows her along…
Someone had to begin, had to wind the clock and set it
tick-tocking: the second proof, Ultimate Good,
the phoenix of memory, to know God against which
She measures her own frailty,
Her own gains and losses.
Variations on Small is a brilliant series of meditations:
Dirty coffee cups cluck like chickens.
and a fat black fly is trapped
on the frozen window.
Get the swatter.
The days are a knotted rope
One bumping the other along
Until we fall at the end
Into a place in which we fall forever…
At night we turn toward
the white sleep of chrysanthemums,
sleep like a tongue licking
smally, the way a cat does.
First paws, then face,
saying I will never love you
more than this,
This is an evocative ending section for this wonderful collection, recapitulating and showing forth how it is that at the end of it all, the journeys through fire, how we must contend with its ashes and new growth: one finds solace, comfort, and anchoring in the particulars, the quietly luminous every-day tasks.
In The Baker’s Apprentice:
The doughy kisses wait for the oven,
sit obligingly with no fuss.
soon she will pull down the drawbridge of heat,
slide the pan in,
close the metal door behind them.
But Waterman as poet and speaker is no apprentice. The Labyrinth is masterful, turning on a walk with the poet’s daughter, proffering in direct lines the sense of journey once more and yet the journey that both does and does take us anywhere, so that it is a winding and we are not sure to what extent we have doubled back on ourselves. And the repeated recognition of what paying attention offers:
Even in this time of deep silence
everything gives itself to us
over and over.
The sere forsythia branches
against a stone wall…
There are loving and direct poems in this final section, each an exquisitely crafted world of interwoven symbol and meaning, each turning on carefully honed imagery. In Love Calls:
The Sunday sky lightens. Such a long life.
So many thoughts rising on a January dawn, appearing
as lost souls calling us back, insisting on their place among
the living, held in the difficult balance of earth and time
like clean white sheets and pillowcases on a line.
In The Transplant:
When you turn to me
all the pigeons of the world wheel and soar.
I open like the great cave,
like love, death. When you turn,
your hands on my heart
holding me, a shell to your chest,
The world tumbles over and over.
I lift one languid arm,
the surgeon’s knife
sliding into love.
We inevitably open to love again and again, with its simultaneously white-hot and icy fire. In Fire Song:
What do grackles find in dead grass?
They gather, then fly away together
on a roof painted the color of flame.
rustle and breath of fire.
Our Lady of Grackles.
Pilgrimage of seed and wing.
Oh, unnecessary skin!
The red-gold tulips are somnolent
in a cold March dusk.
Soon moon, or no moon.
Bone-dark, black arms of cottonwood tree.
Only feather of candle
and the woman with wings standing
in the doorway.
So it is that Book of Fire is a poetry of statement, question, articulation of mystery, epiphany, grief and love. To read and live with these poems is to find in the work of Cary Waterman the astounding voicing of the continuum of experience in uncompromising and indelibly lyrical terms.
To read my other reviews posted to this blog, click here.
Jenne’ R. Andrews, M.F.A., January 31, 2012
Nightfall in Verona, A Lyrical Memoir, Orfea Press 2011
In Pursuit of the Family, Minnesota Writers Publishing House
Reunion, Lynx House Press
The Dark Animal of Liberty, Leaping Mountain Press