Watermarks, Laura Burkhart’s second book of poetry, will make you laugh. You can hear the poet’s glee in many of these poems-and you wonder how she maintains such fine control of language while giving herself over to all-out play.
The levity begins with the first poem, “Advice from Noah’s Wife”, who can “hardly breathe halfway through, let alone tell Noah he should have hired a female ark-tech who knows the ins-and-outs of cleaning.”
It’s fitting that a poet who achieves a high level of playfulness with language should include a poem about strategically placing the word “Envy” on a (somewhat altered) Scrabble board, then topping that move with an even better score-“well let’s just say/your fellow players will turn/a not-unpleasant shade of green/when you also use all seven/letters for the 50-point bonus.”
In “Writing the Old Frogs Home” the amphibious narrator admits that “Maybe this frog/hospital doesn’t even exist/outside our own lily-/livered minds. Maybe this/is really a frog-leg emporium/and that’s why there are so many/wheel chairs down by the pond.” And, from the same poem, have you heard the one about Mr. Weber, the tenth-grade chemistry teacher? We watch him “roll mercury around the palm/of his hand while the class recited/the periodic table boron, boron,/boron…”.
Of course, Watermarks is not all fun and games-and even at its funniest moments, we apprehend something darker under the surface. Mercury is lethal after all, and Noah’s wife is well-placed to make a comment or two about male privilege.
To start with, Watermarks is a subversive title for any paper-and-ink book. After all, a watermark is not there to be noticed-unless you have a specialist’s interest in the lineage of paper or the authenticity of postage stamps and banknotes. The title suggests that what’s most worthy of your attention is what is normally overlooked, something in a realm that is beyond the veil of text and the page.
Offering glimpses of the ineffable may be a poet’s stock-in-trade-but it’s not often achieved as breathtakingly as in some of these poems. Burkhart navigates the knife edge between technical mastery of language and the courage to surrender control, to give in to the “strange animal” that “steals my thoughts”.
The poet’s voice in “Anniversary” is spare, refuses to call attention to itself. Marking the year that has passed since an ex-husband’s accidental death, the poem’s opening lines (“Early morning gap between/birdsong quiet as death./I open red curtains.…”), direct our focus, not to the words of the poem, but to the silence that the words gesture towards. The uncurtained window is like the poem itself, almost transparent, an opening for the reality-beyond-the-poem.
In a similar vein, “Dream of the Dead” steers clear of poetic effects, employing language that is stripped-down and conversational: “My father is still dead./I’ve seldom thought of him/these last five years, and then, usually/with an arrogant kind of pity”. Later in the poem: “When he was dying he asked me: is this/all there is? You’re born, you live, you die?” The power of the poem flows from simple, unadorned details, closely observed-“…a shadow/silent in the hallway when I pass,/sitting with Reader’s Digest at the kitchen table….”
Beyond the geographies of love and death and sexual politics, landscapes are woven throughout Watermarks, exotic and not-so-exotic -a Southeast Asian market, Regina in winter, a summer morning in Vermont, a textiles shop in Egypt.
But the landscape most present in these poems is the Big Island of Hawaii, the writer’s home. It’s a place of contradictions, temperate and fruitful, with mangoes “…poised/On the branch like a word of wisdom.” But it’s also an island with a long-active volcano, where the earth beneath your feet may prove anything but firm. “Where will you be when the earth trembles/like an enraged lover?” is the question posed by “In Both Languages”. “How will you translate into meaning/what you grab to take along?” Where the land may prove volatile, “Sound of Water” suggests that it is better to learn to trust the ocean that “holds me drop/by drop when I plunge/off rocks. I can no/longer see the spray-/beneath the waves is silence.”
The language of Watermarks is finely-crafted-intelligent, witty, impeccably cadenced, a sensual pleasure to read aloud. But the genius of this exceptional collection is that it invites us beneath the surface, to a place beyond language, to silence and mystery.
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