by Michael Waters
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2006
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The collapse of metaphysics may have turned philosophers to Prozac, preachers to an even
shriller falsetto, and scientists to peacock glory, but for diverse writers the spilt religion regathered
in poems finds its subject in the grossest
of materialisms: sex and all that comes with
it (including, as Baudelaire knew,
imagination) and the larger grind of
generation—and all that comes with that (as
Keats feared). Waters is not the first, nor
is he the best-known, but he is surely one
of the most naturally inclined when it comes
to connecting the dots between sex with some
intimation of divinity. Or what passes for
divinity these days, where high and low no
longer avoid each other, but have each other in sight.
The title itselfDarling Vulgaritywith
its edgy charm, shows the way. Thus, in "Erotic Roman Antiquities," we find,
. . . glass cases lit like store windows
displaying their goods: penises
with bells hanging from them, penises
with legs, penises with wings and, in one instance,
a penis with bells, legs, and wings.
Here, the presence of erotic possibility maps aesthetics too, in a manner that reminds
one of the late masters of that coincidenceYehuda Amichai, in its earthy directness, and of Jack
Gilbert, in its Mediterranean inflectionwhere Waters' fancy also finds its objective correlative,
one seemingly congenial as well to his New York City origins, though without the mildew of standard "old
A poet with a distinguished catalog of work, Waters covers ground common to his immediate
predessorsLogan, Poulin, Carveras well as his slightly more distant heroesLowell and Pavese.
That is, his poems have always found grounding in a subjectivity that, far from finding itself destabilized
by time or eroded by the shifting standards of the age, has grown more capable with each book. Capable of
what? Well, capable of outlasting the attacks on the privilege of subjectivity, for one thing. It is an
irony that a poet of such subjective muscle and intention finds himself having survived the ongoing war on
the subjective, Romantic project. Be that as it may, his career is as good an example as I know of the
rewards that come of persistence over enlistment. That same war has produced
one of his pet loves: punk rock music (see "Sonnet for Strummer"), which upended
the faux sensitivity in which the '60s fizzled by violating every personal and public space,
as well as every orthodoxy, with one exception: the creed of all-out resistance.
Waters underscores the body itself as a place of artistic transfiguration. In one of
several poems that hook up with the sister arts (painting, sculpture, music, dance), he directs attention
to such transfigurations:
look: they've taken both my breasts.
Yes, I reply, but listen: hasn't God replaced them
with such glorious music?
We are given access to the world where cancer and Goreckí may sign for each other's
deliveries, which is to say the world we recognize with its odd affiliations bound not by lining up to the
straight lines of orthodoxy but by the private and often impolitic wanderings of love.
As he reminds us in "Black Olives," history takes place on the level of the
body. The body could then be said to be incorporated by its time:
I'd select a half-kilo of the most misshapen,
wrinkled and blackest olives
sprung from the sacred rubble below Mt. Athos, then
had to shout, "fuck Kissinger!"
three times before the proprietor would allow me
to make my purchase.
Because fled gods inhabit those shadows, it is enough to glimpse, as Cavafy knew,
a wing disappearing into the hills to certify that the world is thick with rough, immanent
splendorand not of another world only, but of other ways of construing the onrush of time and
space of simultaneous worlds. Waters limns the presence of such another world in the midst of this one:
We had been arguing, slightly drunk,
about ex-lovers with flirtatious
gestures, about low murmurs in corners
suddenly they appeared.
("Fauns Fleeing before an Automobile")
The layering of the natural and the supernatural, of the natural within the
natural, is often figured as a trick of the light. This trick enforces the ambivalent nature of
interpretation and so tempers judgment. Rather, it is the feeling that characterizes the poet's concern: how it felt, not what it was.
Our rampant voices stilled then
that awestruck hush,
creation's tentative pause
then only the tick of wipers urging our arrival
home, the undressing, the desperate
confusions of flesh . . .
In "Poinciana" the speaker recounts "The man who offered one hundred
dollars/ to watch my wife undress." The poem's wide-eyed setup reminds one of Christopher Walken
in its confused-but-deliberate hyperreality and of Raymond Carver in its moral bargain-hunting.
Its seeming bedroom nihilism has another purpose:
I tapped one finger along the ivory
keys of her spine, not knowing what came next,
or how to strike our shame
before money exchanged hands
or when waking next morning wild with thirst.
Waters has never thrown a punchline, and it's clear in this poem why timing is
crucial. That thirst—for clarity, for bodily
renewal—stands as the default position for
much of Waters' poetry. Because the thirst is ultimately metaphysical, it can
never be quenched, and thus the poems achieve the impression of being given additional
power by a supplemental engine. It raises the inconvenient question of whether the body
itself isn't in some sense ultimately metaphysical, too, the acceptance of which would go
a ways toward getting rid of confusions attending the connections of the body to sex,
divinity, and textuality.
Rare among contemporary poets whose aesthetics were honed at Iowa (but not among those
few who read their John Logan), Waters is what might be called an organic formalist. The heightened rhetoric,
the poetic language so often associated with formalism, has never been his interest. The distance between
high and low, as we have seen, operates within a more demotically tweaked bandwidth so that heightened
language is so as a result of quiddities and
ad hoc moments, and wears its knowingness conspicuously, if lightly. He has
written a number of poems in syllabics, for instance, a form that often doesn't
announce its presence. Within that form, he brings the master craftsman's ground-level
intelligence. Take this passage from "American Eel":
Suddenly my daughter let loose a shrill ewwww!
below that sour pitch, a dim
sorption like soapsuds sieving through a wooden
eels stranded in low tide . . .
The syllabic alternations enact the "flaccid/intimations" of their "doubling
"the sorption like soapsuds sieving," with their serpentine hiss and rising
vowels, remind us why the daughter's cry is so instinctual: when we look at eels, we
By the end of the first, erotically charged section, sex has become a word. The daughter's
use of the F-word produces her father's double response:
"Bad word," I wagged my finger [. . . . .]
"but," I couldn't help myself, "you used it correctly."
"Eddie's Parrot" is a good poem to start off the post-erotic section, as it
goes to the question of substitutions and the ways in which wording underwrites the body. The parrot's
insistent "Where's Eddie? Where's Eddie?" continues after Eddie dies, until his widow "snapped
and stormed that Catskill comic's /stage." Echoing an early poem of Gregory Orr (who himself follows
the classical Horatian example), Waters shows that when the word is gone, you are,
well, also gone.
The parrot is followed by the poet's own ventriloquism in "Family Outing," both
a family tale and a wide parody of "tough-guy" writing. The poet's off-duty police
grandfather "nabbed the thug" who seems a cartoon of sexual abuse.
Soon a buddy cop huffed up
to cuff the creep who leaned in close to whisper
into my grandmother's ear.
Here, each keyword is an indictment in the dream of rough peace and rougher justice. No
problem with water-boarding in this poem. It mirrors our insecurities in a former age when good people,
the prey to "creeps," are collared and dealt a summary justice, the techniques of which receive
tacit approval of women, the intended victims.
A middle section of prose pieces is reminiscent of Lowell's famous prose bridge
("92 Revere Street") in the seminal
Life Studies. The similarity is not just fortuitous:
Lowell figures as a character in one of the pieces. This section shows that it is
not true that poets who affect concentration at verse fail at prose. In the first
piece, the young poet is afraid his bike will be stolen if he spends too much time in
confession, and the anxiety over having to choose between this world and the other world
builds to a crisis. The second piece recounts the young poet's meeting with the scandalous
Allen Ginsberg just when his mother has discovered that he is attempting to become a writer
by scribbling piecework porn. The third prose piece describes an encounter with Robert
Lowell in England, just when it was thought necessary for British dons to
discountenance "confessional poetry." The final piece ("The Soul")
plays a good riff on the poét maudit theme. A neighbor offers to pray for the poet
who is on the way to have ear-fluid unclogged, presumably in order the better to hear
Blink-182. This quaint gesture is received with patience, but later the poet wonders,
in fact, about whether the soul isn't saved in some sense by its damnation.
I have a colleague who asked my creative writing students if they thought I was going to hell. Waters? On
skis, one laughed, and when they told me, I reminded them that "skiing" might be the only word in
the English language to employ the double i. Hawaii, one said. English, I repeated, racing downhill,
the slope all to myself.
This would be a good place to end another collection, but one of the virtues of
Waters' talent is its recursive intelligence: careers like his evolve because the poet takes another
look. In "The Tether,"
Some almost-shapes drift by.
Awe. A distant knocking.
Then the long haul.
"Commerce" takes as its occasion the faking of miraculous survivals at that
epicenter of honeymoon kitsch, Niagara Falls. In the "commerce" with time and circumstance,
desire trumps credibility: the entrepreneurial intelligence knows this, just as it knows that casual
cruelty is the American key (and if the blind torture the blindall the better):
Then one cat was found, eyeless, legs broken,
so for the next decade tramps tortured strays
to sell them to tourists, farm boys, and Poles
as The Cat Swept Over Niagara Falls . . .
Several poems juxtapose the slacker urgency of indie and punk with classical
artifacts, and yet what hints at eccentric accommodations turns out to be the dirunal pendulum of
process. In "Ossuary,"
The widow hawking postcards hustles us
toward sunlightwe've breathed centuries enough
of mold & spore & crumbling fibulae.
We've witnessed enough. These schoolgirls want
Let them follow each othera scraggly
crusade of backpacks & pierced lips & brows
till they flame to spirit down the noon glare.
Let us all unburden ourselves before
the next plague . . .
His love of music situates him among those for whom the distant past has not yet
established a grip, and yet, being a poet, he finds one foot here, the other in that past. Moreover,
he declines the attempt to reconcile the contradiction and stands as poets since Whitman have been
invited to do, highlighting his own ambivalence. This is that ambivalence that Brodsky
called "healing," no doubt because it references the violence of exclusive choice,
preferring the "weak" position of indecision to the "strong" one of judgment.
Likewise, in "The Crusades," the "martyrdom" of the Notorious B.I.G. is the
thematic overlay to French sarcophagi. The ambivalence, the declining to judge, is
on display here too. Between hip-hop and solemn reliquary art: no choice. As the
poet who knows the name Jean D'Alluye is aware, hip-hop (and popular culture generally)
is a kind of crusade to liberate us from the necrotic reach of the unreasonable past.
A poem about student days ("Backrub") finds the speaker accepting the siren-song
of an obese woman who haunted the campus like "a wet dream of Christo, a draped tornado/ clanging its
ceramics, her bracelets & earrings," who beckons "with a wheedling tongue,/ wanting someone
please to touch her." What must have started with gallant self-sacrifice ends with, "So one
morning, why not, I volunteered." But while the possibilities for recognition and contrition are
numerous, the poet doesn't go there. Instead, he finds
that he is "losing myself in the laborious process of creation." Acceptance,
seemingly so arbitrary is seenin that same arbitrarinessas participating
in "the process of creation," though nothing is created that would count as
The process of creation is touched upon again in "Making Love at the Frost
Place," here contrasted with the Good Gray Poet's process of creating poems, in particular, "After
Apple-Picking," which manages to tame the
timor mortis. Now, as an unintendend consequence, it provides a master-auspice
to the lovers.
There is much to admire and much to love in Darling Vulgarity, not least of which
is the sense of experience
as a worthwhile congeries of unsortables and exuberances. The plain fact is that we age,
and in aging try to figure out whether experience is a fit substitute for love. Yeats
wondered it, and said no. Waters, whose poems are vibrant embodiments, would agree,
except that he would equally agree with Miles Davis, the subject of "Junkie
Tempo," that time is the thing: "always time and time again relentless
time:/ time, Miles used to smile, like a motherfucker."