Fusion: Water

Living in Nebraska has taken me, for the first time, so far from the kind of body of water that fills you with awe at its immensity—I mean an ocean, a really large lake or absurdly wide rivers. It is a strange feeling because I know that there is something quite meaningful about being so far inland, and I am yet to find the language for it. I also realize that I have come out of a poetic tradition that truly engages the sea—engages water as metaphor, as source of meaning, as history. These poets, Cesaire, Goodison, Senior, Walcott, and Brathwaite, are all poets of water, of the sea. And so are the novelists whose works consumed me as a child. I grew up with a hunger for history, and every great historical narrative began with the sea—that great river separating the captive, the exiled, from home. It is hard to know what else to do with this fact of what water means to me. I don’t think I have to do much with it. But I can say that I have come to this particular version of FUSION with a desire to see how poets deal with water—with the idea of water. After all, I met Agnes Lam on the island of Hong Kong less than a year ago, and it was her idea that water be a theme around which we focus this special issue of FUSION with poets from Hong Kong. She speaks with eloquence and grace about the way the poets she selected deal with water, so I will leave you to read her essay. For my part, as we began to trawl our archives for poems on water, we found a rich body of work. It is clear that the bodies of water explored constitute a wide and varied range, and in some ways, how I feel inside of these poems has everything to do with where the water is in these poems.

Which is why I am so pleased that we managed to find the remarkable water-themed work of this issue’s FUSION artist, Karen Kunc. Water here is a physical thing—and by that I mean solid, full-bodied, and mutable in exciting ways. Her work manages to achieve this quality of solidity even while the colors, lightly pastel-like and almost whimsical in moments, can be heavy, brooding, and dangerous in other moments. Imbedded in the images are these slightly obtuse geometrical shapes that remind me of amoebas and other mutating, cell-like creatures that we are often startled to find inside water when looking through a microscope. It is in this sense of how much water is loaded with a universe of meaning and possibility—that which we can’t see unless we look really carefully at it—that I find the paintings to be such fitting complements to the poems we find here.

Inevitably, any gathering of poems around the theme of water will invoke at some point the absence of water. Perhaps I am inclined to start there having recently driven across some dry prairie lands between Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska while listening to harrowing and at times tragic reports of massive fires raging in Arizona and Colorado for want of water, for want of moisture. This idea of dryness is the counter-thought to the rich fecund of bounty that water poems can evoke, yet what we find in this selection of poems published in Prairie Schooner over the years is a complex range of themes and ideas that are connected, indeed, to the idea of water but, ultimately, that are about the way in which the language of water, the discourse of water, if you will, opens up the possibilities of language for the poet. Look at how Laurel Trivelpiece’s account of drought, “Waiting for Water,” ends:

We were left behind, looking
into the cold grate of a sun silted over.
No longer in the game. Unforgiven,
and the thistles piled high across the road.

We are, for better or worse, a world shaped in many ways by enterprising religions whose narrative is inextricably tied to the brittle and often mean landscapes in which water or the absence of such water is critical. As a result, the great texts of the Talmud, the Bible, and the Q’ran are replete with metaphors about water, dryness, and the need for rain, and so it makes sense that many of the poems we have found discover a spiritual preoccupation in the language of water. But these allusions to spiritual matters are not always predictable and do not adhere strictly to any orthodox sense of faith.

Karen Craigo in her poem “Death by Water” invokes the ark, but as she puts it, “from the outside, the way / most people saw it” and right away, we realize that she is speaking of the existentialist absurdity of our existence, and how, despite being left to tread water outside of the ark, we are indeed enacting something completely human and necessary:

You can put your head under
and remember: didn’t you surge
into this world on a wave, crying,
your mouth full of salt?

And as much as we do find the themes of dryness and wetness as metaphors for spiritual strength or weakness in some of these poems, the more compelling source of spiritual possibility comes when the theme of water is connected directly to the woman’s body and the idea of the mythic power of the woman’s body as the container of flow, a body fully connected to the tides and moon. In her poem “She Leans from Herself,” Bernice Ames lays out this connection elegantly:

A turning moon
pulls narrow shores
into the river.
Between girl and woman
she gathers herself
a tide of slow water.

In the same spirit, Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis, in her gleefully musical poem “Cisterna,” is quite happy to pun on the word “well.” And here again, the woman is connected to water—defined by water:


This connection between water and the female body is most graphically and movingly captured in the poem “Water Story” by Courtney Davis, in which the speaker remembers the way water transforms first a potted plant, and then the body of a dangerously dehydrated pregnant woman. The final image is a splendid instance in which the earthy description of the birth of a child echoes the crucifixion and the markers of miracles:

…Seven months later
the woman’s chubby boy popped out, head first,
blood and water flooded the catch basin, spilled over.
I carry this story on my white shoes.

At times, of course, the woman’s relationship to water can be quite sensual. In her poem “American Alligator” Barbara Helfgott Hyett finds a vicarious sensuality in the mating of two alligators. The male alligator is traditional—he mounts, he caresses, he holds her jaw, but it all happens in what has to be implied as her element—the woman’s element—and suddenly we begin to understand that whatever tenderness may be in this poem lies in the way that water transforms the sexual act into what I will have to inadequately call a feminine moment:

Everything is moving:
shadows on the delicate eyeballs, the lids
of their ears, the inner ear, eleven thousand
vibrating hairs. The light on the water shimmers
as it enters the narrow slits of their eyes.

Equally sensual, almost predatory, and certainly haunting is the poem “Water” by Susan Bergman who describes a baptism that is at once transgressive in the way the speaker invokes her fascination with pornography, and how that turns into a deeply poignant understanding of the nature of objectification and the strange sense of complicity that a woman, a girl, might feel, and then how that becomes a moment in which she contemplates ideas of sin and redemption. Bergman lets the girl speak, full of vulnerability, contradiction, alarm, and the last vestiges of her startling innocence:

…Now we lick our fingers. The men must want us
to stroke ourselves. I do. I am the bride

of Christ. Sown in dishonor, raised in glory.
Lying back in the preacher’s arms, dusk’s late
warmth released itself, unevenly, in air.

I am especially struck, too, by the idea of drinking as a metaphor, but especially as a very physical thing. In poem after poem, the body’s relationship with water is tactile, complete, and wonderfully captured. In Sarah Gorham’s “Victorian Teacup,” she writes of the place “Where my lip / pressed eagerly to drink,” and Sherman Alexie, in “Toward the Conception,” offers us this particular image of blessing, “We cup our hands / and drink from this water,” even as he celebrates the beginning of a child in a woman.

The gesture is repeated somewhat in Ron Rash’s poem “Lasting Water,” in which he remembers his grandfather regarding with profound appreciation the spurt of underground water that will irrigate a field. He, too, gathers the water in his hands:

He called it lasting water,
that low-pulsed flow he scooped up
with blistered palms so it might
touch his lips as he kneeled there
at the field’s edge where corn rows
withered like paper in flames…

The gesture, ultimately, is one of prayer for rain.

Toi Derricote’s poem for her little fish, Tele, “Special Ears” repeats this image but reverses it. The fish is in the water creating a sensual dialogue between the body and water with its small mouth: “…his mouth would open / like a little scoop of blackness & let out one bubble, like a smoke / ring of my father’s, a message from the underworld.” It is mysterious and haunting, and it evokes the memory of a distant father in quite complex ways. We understand that there are larger myths, both private and public, being contained inside the relationship between the body and water.

Tika Brand Matthews follows this myth-like vein in the poem, “Five Chinese Brothers,” in which a man fills his mouth with water, “a landscape of liquid,” and moves around the barren and empty landscape left behind as he holds it all in his mouth. What is left is a fascinatingly subtle but quite clear idea of what the absence of water can be. In this sense, the poem may be called an apocalyptic fable—it works beautifully when read in this way.

Darker themes shaped around the idea of water emerge in other poems. Indeed, the Indonesian poet W.S. Rendra finds in the dark silt heavy river a metaphor for the psyche of someone contending with issues of hope and anxiety. There is, of course, a long tradition of black rivers as symbols of the journey into the deeper and sometimes inscrutable inner life of the individual. This makes sense, even though in my experience these “black” rivers are quite beautiful and elegant features of the landscape. Still, in Rendra’s hands mystery is important, but more than that, something diabolic is associated with the river:

It flows. Flows. Who knows from where?
A hermit secret, a secret of grief.
Loneliness born of too much asking.
How it runs, with its poisonous tongue?

For Yehuda Amichai, whose work we published in 1988, the water assumes a far more positive and hopeful character. In fact, we find ourselves back to the place where water provides him with a metaphor for healing. For Amichai, the woman does not need actual water; what she needs is the flow of human contact to bring her healing in the middle of New York:

The doctor has ordered her to be seated here
so the flow of young men and woman will rinse
her every day, like healing spring waters.

It is a way of seeing the world that is so consistent with Amichai’s imaginative humanity.

Federico Garcia Lorca, too, writes with tender regard for the sea. None of this is surprising. In his poems and especially in his plays, the sea is a recurring motif. The piece “Ballad of the Water of the Sea” translated by Lloyd Mallan, is wholly Lorca:

The sea
Smiles in the distance
Teeth of foam
Lips of sky.

In the end, though, what seems to be most common in these poems is the fact of water, bodies of water—whether rivers, streams, oceans, teacups, rain, blood, birthing fluids, or orange juice (as in the sensual and evocative poem “Water Translation” by Katherine Soniat). The water transforms us—it transforms the world around us and our relationship to that world and to ourselves. This has to be what Xiaofe Tian is invoking in the poem “Boundaries”:

The water was altering the color of the sky
and altering me
I was flowing
while my shadow stood on the bank
like a tree struck dumb by thunder

I wanted to go to the other side
of the river

We end the selection with something of a benediction. It is not a prayer in the sense of a petition. It is a prayer in the purer sense of recognition—a kind of statement about the presence of water in our lives, the way it begs the poet to write of it. Consistent with what we have seen in these selections, the poem comes at water slant, as if we can only understand water by what it is not—by looking at the things that must relate to it. This is Shelley Ehrlich’s poem “Water Lilies,” which I quote in full, knowing that you would not be hurt by reading it twice:

on the glacial pond
I dream

I’m drowning.

From slimy stems
tangled in mud
I surface

sailing its fleet

It is worth noting, at the end of it all, that what our FUSION series is showing us is just how much the dialogue between poets constitutes a conversation that manages to cross time, geographical spaces, and cultural lines.

Photo of Kwame Dawes

About the Author

Kwame Dawes’ eighteenth collection of verse, Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon Press), appeared in 2013. His awards include the Hollis Summers Prize, the Forward Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor at the University of Nebraska. He also teaches in the Pacific MFA Program.