Sunday, January 6, 2019

Michael Waters: The Dean of Discipline

The Dean of Discipline is an appropriate name for Waters’s twelfth poetry collection. Not only does the title character make its appearance in “Detention” as an administrator at “Christ the King HS,” where the narrator “…coaxed   the Dean of Discipline / To make bad boys read books” instead of “stand[ing] face-to-wall   hands clasped   behind back[s],” it is also an appropriate description of the poet. This Dean of Poetic Discipline, like the former, holds to principle while allowing for evolving tactics of control. Emblematic of this collection’s negotiation between loose and tight properties, each of the fourteen decasyllabic, precisely-crafted lines is allowed to breathe, with extra spaces between words serving the function of commas, but providing a more relaxed meter and visual rendering of pauses. And instead of depending upon end rhyme to top off a lock-step melody, Waters mostly deploys his camouflaged, slant rhymes inside the lines’ interior, where they do their work of creating music undercover.
In a 1998 interview with John Hoppenthaler, Michael Waters traced his evolution as a poet from the early belief “that it was the power of the poet that made the poems, and it was the poet’s idea that informed the poem,” coming to believe “more in the power of language rather than in the power of the poet... that the poem might suggest where it wanted to go, and it would do so through language, through word choice, rather than through idea.” In multiple books since his early poems of the ’70s, Waters has written poems that embody that belief with a muscular, musical diction that is at the forefront of his lyrical narrative poems. There are none better being written today. 
The Dean of Discipline, while in places departing from the syllabic and “written by ear” prosodies hovering around ten syllables per line that readers have grown to expect from this poet at the height of his powers, never swerves from looking to language to explore universal longings through the particularities of human existence. In “Cannibal,” for example, a poem that begins “Among the survivors of the Donner / Party—idiom’s black sense of humor—,” with images of “…flesh / Flaked between the fluted bones of a wrist,” and “charcoaled tongue or poached heart,” quickly moves to … “Jeffrey Dahmer ladl[ing] a young man’s head into a pot, / The water simmering, lightly salted, / New potatoes, leeks, and scrawny carrot / Floating past eyes uplifted toward Heaven.” Two-thirds into the poem, Waters shifts hunger’s attention away from body as food, to body as lover:                      
        How my mouth covets your body,
Teeth grazing buttocks, shoulders, each nipple.
How I want to cradle you inside me
As you clasp me within, to celebrate
Our secular, primeval communion.

The first twenty-two lines are uniformly decasyllabic. In the twenty-third, final line, the poem reaches for something beyond with an eleventh syllable. It is noteworthy that the only word containing more than one syllable—the word that makes the line more than ten—is “poems.” And yet when reading it aloud, “poems” can be voiced quickly enough to sound as one syllable. Thus it is a pivotal word, living in two worlds at once, pushing the syllable count over ten, but not upsetting the baseline rhythm of the poem. This one word becomes the hinge that allows the poem to extend beyond itself, while remaining true to itself. 
This enactment of the idea by the form is not coincidental. It is primary to the way Waters writes, and one secret to how his poems throb so palpably with desire, both particular and universal. The dedication “for Mihaela” “…inscribe[s] this desire / Bite mark by bite mark” into particularity. The poem itself, the very ink scripted on the page, and the language read into the air, joins itself to a different “you”—all who would bring the same hunger to its reading. Understood in this way, the poem can be seen as an ars poetica: “What can I do but write these poems for you?” It is as if we are listening in on a private conversation, only to discover that the conversation is about us too.
            Waters crafts his placement of poems as carefully as he does each line. Across the page from “Cannibal” is a poem titled “lesire —>.” With a decasyllabic first baseline, around which the remaining lines pulse above and below—and often return to—ten syllables, the poem begins with a reflection on the previous poem, echoing the poet’s other poems that begin with longing and plunge inevitably into darker places: “I keep thinking the meaning of the word / Must be desire, so want to follow its arrow / To wherever it’s pointing….” Then halfway through the poem we encounter “But the meaning of the word is Exit, / Meaning, therefore, death, that space I’d rather / Avoid….” The remainder of the poem is a sample of Waters’s sparsely used, but always-effective combination—a visual cue bordering on concrete poetry, followed with an onomatopoetic diction that makes for a knockout punch.
                        an absence, abyss, an abscess
Raw as a screech chalking a blackboard
Or, louder and rippling outward,
Zero’s ceaseless, starless, staticky buzz,
Unlike the seizure-inducing strobe
I keep pretending desire is.  

            Reading this stanza aloud, one experiences the poem with multiple senses. The eye sees the void—that absence of words in the blank line—slightly before the throat feels the gap in the flow of air with each of the sibilant sounds in “ab-sence,” “aby-ss,” and “ab-scess,” carrying into the next line with the necessary break in the voice between “screech” and “chalking.” The ear is introduced to the beginning sound work that is sustained throughout the stanza—so much so that if it were not read aloud, one might miss some of the Zs in “Zero’s…buzz,” and  “the seizure-inducing strobe” that “desire is.” Waters leaves no detail unattended. I cannot conceive it an accident that the only line with ten syllables in this stanza is the antepenultimate line, “Zero’s ceaseless, starless, staticky buzz.” After eight lines of at least ten syllables, in the final lines, the poet varies syllabic count, much as a concert pianist employs different dynamic levels for contrast and emphasis—in this instance with a decrescendo to mezzo forte, a crescendo back to forte, and finally another decrescendo in the ultimate line.
            In addition to the pleasure I always get from reading Waters’s lyrical narrative poems that sing, revealing under closer examination a precision of craft and depth of feeling that is not achieved by many, the joy for this reviewer is that Waters is not content to write book after book utilizing only his signature moves. In The Dean of Discipline, the poet broadens his repertoire with poems that expand prosodic devices previously dabbled in, introducing nonce forms that remain true to his poetic sensibilities. 
Although he has used the drop-down line effectively in many poems, I have not seen Waters begin a collection with a zipper poem—two columns of offset lines that work three ways. Each line can not only be read across the page, but each column can be read down the page as well. Even here, Waters gives language free reign, not compromising word choice in favor of formal rigor, each column moving down the page with a stumbling kind of sense, as if the vodka tonics were taking hold. Even within, or perhaps because of this form, word choice and language seem to be primary. Rather than an experimental exercise in form, the poem’s structure seems to emanate from its diction and narrative thrust. The opening lines are sufficient to make this point:
            Kim, Kathleen, & I
                                                                        stumbled toward the hammock,
            Careful not to spill
                                                                        our communal vodka tonic.
            We flopped onto our backs
                                                                        & let the netting sway,
            Three fiery tongues
                                                                        below two venerable oaks.
            Two foxes yawped
                                                                        two fields away.
                                                                        we traded sorrows, mild jokes,
            Lists of lovers—         
                                                                        three bodies swapping intimacies
            In a hammock  
                                                                        wide enough for two.

            The obvious step down before the threesome “stumbled toward the hammock;” the “Three fiery tongues” as cognates for the three separate poems within the poem; the swaying back and forth between the lines of the poem as enactment of the hammock; the coupling and uncoupling of the lines in the same way the three bodies do “In a hammock // wide enough for two,”—all are perfect examples of the delightful enactment of content with form. 
            If this first poem of the book, titled “Novae” (can the dedication, “for K,” refer to Kim, Kathlene, or both?), is a new kind of ars poetica for Waters, the final one is more typical. “Poetry” is a reiteration of the poet’s commitment to the line, to the genre, and to writing it as a full-time, perhaps I should say as an all-the-time, endeavor—not merely “ris[ing] in the night to pencil words,” but keeping watch, “hunched on narrow ledges / Sighing bird sounds…this is where poetry originates.” And we readers are so lucky that Waters remains vigilant and hungry on that ledge, always ready to scavenge some “flash below” and translate it into poetry. 


                        —filches dreams from birds,
            Pigeons with twisted grins or crooked feet,
            Their thumb-thick heads tucked under wings
            On cornices overlooking traffic
            That throbs and sparks along the avenue
            And shivers vibrations up building walls.
            These birds drowse despite fumes and noise—
            Never vexed by money, or sex,
            Or how thoughts wane in lazy minds.
            They don’t rise in the night to pencil words,
            But remain hunched on narrow ledges
            Sighing bird sounds—coos and trills—
            Which are translated without knowledge
            Of avian language by insomniacs
            Whose brains hiss with fire as they scrawl
            Gnomic verse in the blunt circle of light
            Thrown down on the desk near the window.
            A flash below…a flax seed beckoning…
            This is where poetry originates
            Some nights, swiping the reveries of birds
            Who quit their perch as morning commences
            To scavenge the bus stop for croissant flakes
            Fallen from plump lips of dazed commuters.
            One finds a button. Another plucks up
            A keychain bead—nothing to be eaten,
            But how chic it speaks in the busted beak.

The Dean of Discipline by Michael Waters, The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, $15.95 paper

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