“Monsters, Little Forevers, Beautiful Brief Flight”: Review of Judith Vollmer’s The Water Books

The Water Books by Judith Vollmer
Autumn House Press: 2012

Judith Vollmer teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and in the Drew University MFA Program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation, and is founding editor of the literary journal 5 AM. This is her fourth collection.

Review by Emily Vizzo

A poem is a place to be brave, if the poet is lucky and the reader present. And I guess you could say the same thing about love, that it is a place to be brave and lucky and present. In The Water Books, Judith Vollmer’s poems talk to each other beneath the waterline, pressing their bare lungs against the grains of the page and letting us listen to the sound of their love.

Vollmer’s “New Black Dress” reminds me of every new black dress I’ve ever worn, the way the body is a machine “floating above the shift-gears of the night-rivers” but also “silk & fur & bone” so that a woman makes a wish: “Could I wear this dress till its cottonsilk/grows into my skin,” undoing the new of a new dress so that we’re left with just the black and a dress. And what woman isn’t partly a witch, belonging to her own body, “with its translucent hem running/the circumference of its black rhinestone tail.” And what dress isn’t a wish? And what wish isn’t, in the end, for some kind of hour or for some kind of love?

“Field Near Rzeszow” begins with an epigraph, identifying a Carpathian field passed down through a family’s matrilineal line. Vollmer draws direct lines between the body and a field, and plants blunt, abandoned fields between men and women. The poem’s men are active, grinding rye flowers, playing guitars, shouting out rowdy songs, warring. The poem’s speaker, though, has unapologetically married her own body to “the original wedding gift,” the sexual, heated, unsealed earth: “If I really owned this land/I would like to lie down on it through thirty seasons.” Vollmer’s instincts trend Plath-like toward the poem’s middle-section, evoking a sweet, subversive submission to the humbleness of flowerpots and geraniums—but also the many-parted eroticism of tools and insects. In this wonderful section, I’m very much reminded of Plath’s “Who.” Here’s Vollmer:

Go into the woods
get the black dirt
for the flower pots

Save the brown water
from the sinks & tubs,
save the dregs of the soup pot

Save the brown water
from the sinks & tubs,
save the dregs of the soup pot
for the geraniums,
save the coffee grounds for the roses.

Dig for the best nightcrawlers
under the shadows of boulders
at the edge of the meadow where the table-
rock piled with the big rocks
writes its story in long lines—

And here’s Plath:

The month of flowering’s finished. The fruit’s in,
Eaten or rotten. I am all mouth.
October’s the month for storage.

This shed’s fusty as a mummy’s stomach:
Old tools, handles and rusty tusks.
I am at home here among the dead heads.

Let me sit in a flowerpot,
The spiders won’t notice.
My heart is a stopped geranium.

If only the wind would leave my lungs alone.
Dogsbody noses the petals. They bloom upside down.
They rattle like hydrangea bushes.

Mouldering heads console me,
Nailed to the rafters yesterday:
Inmates who don’t hibernate.

Cabbageheads: wormy purple, silver-glaze,
A dressing of mule ears, mothy pelts, but green-hearted,
Their veins white as porkfat.

O the beauty of usage!
The orange pumpkins have no eyes.
These halls are full of women who think they are birds.

This is a dull school.
I am a root, a stone, an owl pellet,
Without dreams of any sort.

Mother, you are the one mouth
I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness
Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.

I said: I must remember this, being small.
There were such enormous flowers,
Purple and red mouths, utterly lovely.

The hoops of blackberry stems made me cry.
Now they light me up like an electric bulb.
For weeks I can remember nothing at all.

Regardless of whether this is conscious channeling, it’s clear to this reader that these poems were lovers in another lifetime, trading slow, strange, earth-patterned tongues. “I would do these things,” Vollmer writes simply. But we also know the speaker would do other things, should she decide to do so. We know she is brave; we’re just not sure if we’re that lucky.

In “Money Comes from Four Places,” Vollmer demonstrates a confident, playful knowingness of sound, thought, and badness. With admirable control, she funnels the reader through a many-textured sonic waterslide, rapidly bouncing from “twitchy” to “sick,” “check,” “book,” with speed bumps of “ditch,” “digs,” “Aruba,” “Tortuga” and “Beluga.” We get quick flashes of weirdness, from the unusual “scirocco” to “roll of 50s” and “3 dimensions/4 places.” As the unsteady reader remains a little speed-dizzied, Vollmer then flings a handful of hard, bright coins in our eyes, taunting, “Whose portrait’s on the C note,/whose the grand?” The speaker already knows I don’t know. With the narrative references to travel, I’m able to picture a capoeira street performer, whirling and cart wheeling between trashcans, uplifted cell phone screens and tourist huddles, abruptly planting an upturned hat beneath my nose before I can look away. Maybe money comes from five places. Though maybe money is also placeless; is landless; is impoverished. And maybe that’s Vollmer’s point.

Given Vollmer’s restraint and spaciousness in previous poems, “Birds of Rome” comes as a surprise with its generous structural density. The Monteverde district of Rome makes another appearance, an unsteady blend of ancient and modern that Vollmer refuses to romanticize. She allows us grappa, flowerwater, the viale rustica, lion-faced fountains, and sacks of rose petals dropped from a dome’s oculus to honor the Pentecost. But she insists on pedestrian strangeness, steering our gaze to an ATM, stroller handles, plastic trash. Mostly though, our speaker makes love to the light:

Now the river’s green lungs lift with herons.
Sheets of light peel off the waters. A surge lifts a fountain of Aquafina bottles.
Two gulls touch down to the silver knives of their nestlings’ open beaks.

Kind of makes me want to kiss Rome on the mouth. Kind of makes me unpeel my brain from its structure, like a cancelled stamp from an empty envelope. “It’s possible to fall in love with a building,” Vollmer promises. And she asks, “The ocean is so big, how will we get over it?” Because when you think about it, how do we get over anything?

“Birds of Rome” is talking intimately with another The Water Books poem, “Kitchen Apologia.” The seat of this domestic trauma takes place between the fork and the bite, somewhere between the spring lettuces and the dinner table, where two lovers have become as incomplete as the “half-circle of steaming dishes” witnessing their fallout. Vollmer sends out spaces like Chinese lanterns, impossible gaps through which the couple unsuccessfully tilt toward one another. Peace is a wish that takes place outside the kitchen, where there is a possibility of

every single hurt dissolving
under the earth’s calendar & how
we nearly
broke each other.

Though the hopeful reader looks for reconciliation in those final four lines, the poem is brave enough, and lucky enough, to resist that happy ending. Earlier imagery of “birds & sunbursts dervishing around our heads” and “horseshoes clanking in the grass” speak of danger and discord, creating a rumpled backdrop that pulls the poem tighter to its loneliness. The only whole heart in the poem belongs to an orchard, which knows to grow itself without hurt and without calendars. The people, we suspect, still hold both like broken dishes.

Other poems lean toward these gorgeous bared spaces at which Vollmer is so excellent: “A Pittsburgh Novel,” “The Silver Tray,” “In An Ancient Garden,” and “For Aaron Sheon,” to name a few.

But I want to sign off with “Rege is Calling from Tuolumne Meadow,” which snaps against itself with odd teeth, including tastes like “the white-on-white cube/of ICU & emergency bypass, (micro-twinge behind shoulder/while on treadmill)” and “exactly calibrate/the flexible arches over the low boulders” and “this July morning it is 11:45 on/my porch, 8:45 on the Range of Light.” All gorgeous, complex sound-jumps with strong bones. Plus one of my favorite lines in the whole collection: “’Love you; I’m off to leave no trace.’” Like almost anything else, it’s the perfect good-bye.

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