- One for the Road
88 Pages; Print, $16.00
If you survey the vast landscape of contemporary American poetry, you will undoubtedly overlook a whole range of poets whose careers aren't distinguished with Pulitzer Prizes or National Book Awards. Add the recent wave of pop poets (poets that utilize social media, such as Instagram to showcase short, accessible, and often trite work) to this already complex scene, and the chances of readers (even the most voracious of them) having heard of the poet Michael Waters might be deemed a miracle, at least in a literary sense. Though Waters' books aren't splayed across the shelves at Target or Barnes & Noble, the consistency of his work over the past 30 years has contributed greatly to American letters, and his unique voice within the poetry world illuminates, with precision and clarity, the intricate nature of the human condition.
In much the same vein as his 2011 book Gospel Night, Waters' new collection, Celestial Joyride, continues to tackle, through narrative and lyrical pieces alike, a variety of subjects and themes: sin, morality, love, nostalgia, and innocence. The book opens with two poems, "Madrigal" and "Effata," that explore the meaning of not only the words from which the poems take their titles but the limited role of language, especially when isolation dilutes any sense of significance. The speaker in "Effata" narrates the way Christ utters the word (Aramaic for "open yourself" or "be opened") to a blind man. (A more detailed account of this story can be found in Mark 7:34, which interestingly enough features a man who is deaf, not blind.) The man's body obeys Christ's command, but as soon as "Christ [is] gone," taking with him the reality of heaven and the reassurance of hope, there is "no one near or far/To horror miracle into [the man's] ear." The isolation felt by both the man and the speaker serves—if more than just sharp concluding lines—as a foundation for the rest of the collection, which leads readers through a mixture of narrative ponderings and short lyrical reflections, the latter of which drives the book the most.
In "Dominoes," Waters' speaker renders the stacking of dominoes with his father as a symbol of life and death. The "labor" of positioning the "Black Caskets" is long and tedious (the first half of the poem centers on this setup), but the reward, although brief, is worth the wait precisely because it allows a small but significant moment to be shared. The speaker kneels with his father "to watch death flow" (the dominoes toppling over one another), aware that when his father passes, he will inevitably fall next. This same feeling resurfaces in the poem "Tic Tac Toe," where the speaker, through the process of playing the game with his son, realizes that he will soon belong to history and everything good and bad that it represents. The son is unaware that his "Xs resemble swastikas" (a jarring image that highlights larger generational differences concerning symbols and meaning), and although his only interest is winning, the father knows that no matter how long these games continue, and how much he intentionally loses, "No symbol [his son] pencils can make [him] stay." Waters, in so little words, is able to capture the utter helplessness of knowing that death is always around the corner. It might catch the reader off guard, but not enough to ever see the connection between the theme (death) and the object (dominoes, tic-tac-toe) as anything less than believable.
Such juxtaposition is nowhere as elegiac as in "Old School." The speaker's brother is, according to the speaker, an "Amateur thug" (if we believe Camaros, pills, and Grandmaster Flash satisfy the prerequisites for a life of violence and lawlessness). Though it seems innocent at first, even if the brother does have a pistol, the brother's act of placing that gun in his dead father's hands at the funeral home cements the tension Waters is so skilled at creating.
Sunglass'd still & jittery, he scanned the room,Swept...