Over the last few years, the world has faced multiple natural disasters caused by extreme weather and rising temperatures. This most recent summer, the United States suffered severe drought, the worst since 1956. Ann E. Michael’s collection of poems, Water-Rites, is a reminder to pay attention to our environment and how our actions impact it. Beyond that, her lyric poems focus on love, loss, grief, and a questioning of the universe, while also linking the memory of departed loved ones to nature.
Water-Rites is divided into three sections. The first deals with nature and sometimes childhood. The second deals with grief, and the third with redemption. One of the strongest poems in the first section is the book’s title poem, “Water-Rites.” Michael creates a speaker who feels guilty for taking long, hot showers, considering how such an act would be a luxury in other parts of the world.
I take my shower,
lean into water’s hot steam
too many minutes
lathered in steam, guilty skin,
knowing the well empties
and the earth’s in drought.
The poem also address turmoil in the Middle East, often caused by oil, which Michael also links to water, writing, “Oil will get you water/water will buy you oil/Barrels and tanks/tanks and barrels/each has meaning/for water and warfare.”
Another memorable poem in the first section is entitled “At Bull’s Head Pond (June 1962).” Michael does a fine job linking the memory of her father to a specific place and to nature. The stark detail and well-drawn imagery makes it easy for the reader to picture the father casting a fishing line into the pond, trying, like the speaker, to revive memory and childhood.
You are here because this was
your father’s favorite place;
you cast for something you long to bring back,
as if it were possible
through yearning, will, or imitation-
fishing, with his pole and tackle,
in your father’s shadow.
Dedicating the poem to her father and using the pronoun “you” several times creates immediacy and brings the father to life throughout the lines.
The yearning for the past and those departed haunts other poems, especially in the second section. The poems “Amputation” and “Scribe” honor the memory of a deceased writer friend. “Amputation” begins with the line “I cannot hold your large hands anymore/those wrists that swelled until you could not write.” The reader can almost feel the ache that the speaker is going through, as she reconciles the loss of a loved one. That feeling returns a few pages later in the poem “Sore: 3 a.m.,” which begins with the line,”Crickets do not provide much comfort,” while in one of the last lines, the speaker declares her tongue is “dry with losses.” Anyone who has suffered through restless nights or insomnia because of loss and heartache can relate to the poem.
By the third section of the book, the issues surrounding death still loom. In the poem “Yellow Forsythia,” a family, including two children, encounters a wounded doe hit by a car. The husband tries to save the deer, as blood runs down its muzzle and one ear twitches. Each family member has a different reaction. By the last lines, the son demands that the windows be closed, either to avoid the smell of death, or the idea of suffering. The daughter, meanwhile, has a different reaction, and mutters, “stupid cars.” A line later, it is stated that “her outrage engulfed our station wagon.” The husband is the most humane, trying to soothe the animal so it doesn’t die alone. He serves as an apt reminder to treat life and nature with respect, while the children question death and the cruelty of the universe.
By the conclusion of the book, there is a sense of redemption. Like in nature, there is new life after death. In the poem “That Love Goes On,” Michael writes that we learn “the sun will/reappear from behind fog or darkness, that water will/wet earth, make mud, produce the leaf and seed,”before concluding the poem with the optimistic lines, “that death shuts out the purpose of/ears and eyes, that love goes on.”
Water-Rites is a fine collection of lyric and narrative poems. The dead come alive through Michael’s lines, as she tries to reconcile what she lost. The book also serves as a reminder that the universe can be a harsh place, even more so if we have little respect for nature and are not cautious about how our actions impact the environment.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Literary Magazine, Red Rock Review, Inkwell, The Portland Review, Third Wednesday, Rockhurst Review, Harpur Palate, San Pedro River Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length book of poems will be published in 2013 by Unbound Content. A resident of Pennsylvania, Brian currently teaches at Keystone College. Find him online at www.brianfanelli.com.