BOOK OF FIRE, CARY WATERMAN‘S FOURTH POETRY COLLECTION, appeared during the same week lightning struck a pine in the Boundary Waters, starting the Pagami Creek fire, the largest wildfire in Minnesota since 1918. The book’s cover painting seems to depict a cluster of birches burning; look again, though, and the vivid magentas and oranges and golds could just as easily be innocent fall colors, not flames at all. The painting — and the poems within — are open-eyed and fearless, as though they’ve come to challenge the conflagration, or perish in it.
Five sections comprise Book of Fire, and each one begins with a well-chosen epigraph that foreshadows the poems that follow; to continue the fire metaphor, the epigraphs serve as kindling. The first section is unified by a concentrated and contemporary take on the Persephone myth.1 It’s easy to see why this Greek legend appealed to feminists in the 1960s and 70s as a way of talking about the brutality of a patriarchy. It’s also plain to see why the story has persisted historically — the Persephone narrative makes physical and psychological sense, and it’s satisfyingly concise.
Waterman, herself, uses the myth as a poetic framework in which to explore the ways girls are attracted to danger and the forbidden: “It’s a girl’s job to go to Hades,” she says in one poem, and “All the girls want to be Persephone.” The poems are not bitter, but rather seem reconciled to the seasonal death, and the final one. “In the Garden” recalls not just Persephone and Demeter, but also Eve, another female who was curious, who wanted full knowledge. Many of the poems in this section have an irregular form: phrases dash along with urgency, like broken breathing:
She walked through fire to get here rock face lichen blue iris lake left desire, seduction behind
The second section of Book of Fire consists of poems drawn directly from life, with images of parents and family. It opens with these fierce lines: “I sleep in my mother’s coffin./ I just can’t leave her alone,” and it ends with “this kingdom of relations.” In the third section, Waterman grapples with the fact of war; titles include “War in Spring,” “Napalm, 2010,” and others equally suggestive. Waterman says, “Even though I feel like I will live forever/ I know it is not true,/ but only some falsehood that crept over me/ while I slept safe from any bombs.”She quotes Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, my country is the whole world.” For people who came of age in the Vietnam era, these wartime poems have an added layer of meaning.
Section four is filled with travel poems, specifically about a stay in Iceland. The central piece in the final section is a five-part poem called “The Labyrinth,” which is both a physical and spiritual testing ground. It ends, “There is only one way in./ Only one way out.” The entire book, really, feels like an eyewitness account of what life offers up, in all its brilliant strangeness. The poems have an unflinching quality; they have force. They don’t preach, but instead tell their tales in images, in accord perhaps with TS Eliot’s “objective correlative” — an abstract way of saying that the meaning is already in the object, that the motorcycle or the skull contain a suite of correlations, which is why a metaphor can, and does, resonate in the reader. We see “the last light on lilies,” and here the poet describes the midnight sun in Iceland: “At three a.m. it is the color of birth water,/ rose aureole of the breast.” As Ezra Pound observed, “…the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
Cary Waterman’s first published book was a slender chapbook in 1975, First Thaw. This was “Booklet Number 7” from the Minnesota Writers Publishing House, an important cooperative press that introduced many poets (including Louis Jenkins and Kate Green) to a wider audience. Robert Bly wrote an appreciation on the back of Waterman’s first collection, which ended with “Every time I read the book, I am delighted by the stubbornness of her vision.” Louis Jenkins wrote a brief introduction to that same chapbook, and his words describing Waterman’s poems still ring absolutely true: “The language is clear and straightforward. There is no muddying of the language to make it appear poetic. At times the simple language concentrates with incredible force…”
First Thaw was followed, in 1980, with a marvelous book called The Salamander Migration and Other Poems, a full-length collection from one of the most prestigious presses at the time, University of Pittsburgh Press, for its Pitt Poetry Series. Waterman joined a roster of poets there that, at the time, included Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, and Patricia Hampl. Twelve years passed before Holy Cow! Press brought out Waterman’s next superlative collection in 1992: When I Looked Back You Were Gone. Those books are filled with poems that are courageous, direct, and authentic, and for them Waterman received well-deserved rewards, including two Bush Fellowships and the Loft-McKnight Award of Distinction in Poetry.
It’s now nearly 20 years later, and Book of Fire has been a long time coming, perhaps, but it is no less welcome for that. What has changed over these years in the poet’s vision? Do Robert Bly’s words still apply? One of the most striking poems from Waterman’s early chapbook, a poem so good it was reprinted in her Pitt book, is called “After the Pig Butchering.” Here it is in full:
AFTER THE PIG BUTCHERING
"What does the pig think of the dawn? They do not sing but they hold it up." Pablo Neruda I go back two days laterfor the skin. It is dismal weather. The floor of the shed is wet where blood mingles with the red paint and the dark soft manure. It is a watercolor of confusion and pain: of the loss of a piece of thought. The feeding pans are in chaos, tipped like crazy men around the corners. I have gone back to pick up the skin. We left the entrails to droop in a compost heap. I see them sinking like heat into the ground. I know parts of them are ovaries. And there are two blue-lipped stomachs that seem to smile at me. The skin is on the roof of the shed. Carrying it I can tell that it weighs about as much as my five year old son. It is solid like a head against my breasts. I begin to like carrying it and squeeze it closer, rub my cheek into it, and touch the taut nipples. They are watchtowers on both sides of the river we cut open. I am bringing it home. Now the smell is on me; grease on my hands. I bring it all into my house. It slides around the doors, under the beds. It is pungent and obsessive.
Now, let’s look at a poem from section four of Book of Fire (among the poems that focus on travel to Iceland):
At the edge of the North Atlantic beside Iceland's Ring Road I find the sheep skull. I pose it for photos by saxifrage and butterwort and by the pink toes of wild thyme. I leave it, walk to my car, then turn around and go back. The skull becomes a perfect traveling companion, a partner in the passenger seat of my small rented Yaris. She doesn't say much so it's almost like being alone, but not quite. I photograph her at a glacier's edge and at the tiny church at Skaftafell. We drive through miles of black lava. She sees the spearmint-green icebergs dip under the Jokulsa River bridge. She visits the Blue Lagoon, mixes with a crowd of Japanese tourists, wants her own terrycloth robe. After a long day of travel, she rests her head on a blue geothermal pipe, hot artery from the heart. I bring her into my last hotel room. She watches me over breakfast of toast and rhubarb jam. 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.
It’s irresistible to draw a comparison here. In both poems, the narrator, the “I”, is physically carrying part of a dead (female) animal, a pig skin, a sheep skull, with a kind of matter-of-factness and acute awareness, and even a sense of enjoyment, that is almost shocking. To draw a parallel between the weight of a pig skin and one’s child, to recognize that parts of the butchered pig are ovaries — these are unflinching observations that contain enormous implications about life and death and our place in the natural order. Her early poem is open-ended and encourages the very reverberations that the lines set in motion. In what way is the smell of the grease “obsessive?”
In “The Skull,” less guilt attaches to the narrator as there was no butchering, apparently, and the tone is almost whimsical in comparison. Still, “The skull becomes a perfect traveling companion.” One thinks inevitably of Hamlet (“Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.”), but that is only the first of many associations conjured up in this poem. The poet Bill Holm, famous for his trips to his ancestral home of Iceland, is invoked in section four of Book of Fire, so quite naturally he, too, comes to mind as a fellow traveler, perhaps embodied in the skull. The notion of memento mori (remember you are mortal) is deeply reflected in both of these poems, and Waterman’s persistent willingness to bear and explore this fact of life — or as Bly says, the “stubbornness of her vision” — has only been confirmed by passing time.
Nodin Press has done a great service to literature in the past few years by publishing a series of remarkable books of poetry, and Book of Fire is yet another. It is impossible, frankly, in a brief review, to do justice either to this book or to its place among Waterman’s other works. A more thorough assessment will be the happy labor of scholarship. For my part, I would urge readers to take up this book, and live for a time by its light and heat.
Related events and information: Cary Waterman will read from her new book of poems, Book of Fire, along with two other Nodin Press poets, Greg Watson and Linda Back McKay, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis (at Open Book) on Tuesday, October 11 at 7 pm. Other upcoming readings include: Wednesday, October 12 and then again December 7 at the Hamline Public Library in St. Paul; Tuesday, October 18 at the University Club.
*The title of this review is the last line of the title poem in Waterman’s chapbook, First Thaw.