Review of Watermark by Barbara Sabol

Cover of Watermark: An aerial view of what looks to be a beach separating land and sea, with topographical marks overlaid on the land.

Watermark: Poems of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 by Barbara Sabol

Alternating Current Press, 2023

132 pages, $17.99

Reviewed by Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet

People caught in the rubble of catastrophic, large-scale tragedies—victims of war, terrorist actions, natural disasters, and the like—often remain unnamed and unknown. Eventually, individuals are folded into statistics or are given secondary roles in cautionary tales.

That was my perception of the people who perished during the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania. As the child of a father who grew up near that area—and a mother whose uncle died by drowning—the Johnstown Flood loomed large in my family, even though decades had passed since it occurred. Like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York in 1911, we discussed the Johnstown Flood as an epic failure with disastrous consequences. Despite our morbid interest, I could not have cited specifics about those who died, the series of events that initiated the breaking of the dam, or what occurred in its aftermath.

Until now.

Poet Barbara Sabol’s chilling new collection—Watermark: Poems of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889—delves into this tragedy in ways that are, by turns, heartbreakingly sad and breathtakingly beautiful. With the inclusion of historical maps and a foreword that outlines the events leading up to the breaking of the Lake Conemaugh Dam and the 45-minutes-long disaster, Sabol draws attention to and personalizes the more than 2,000 people who lived, worked, and died that day in Johnstown. She also places the burden of the flood squarely on the shoulders of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club—an exclusive haven for the wealthy—which, for years, failed to adequately repair and maintain the dam. Many of the people who died were poor, infirm, children, or elderly; many came from families that had immigrated to the United States in search of better lives. They were the ones who could not get out of the way of the swift, crushing water that swept the town away.

Sabol enters this subject from a personal place, since Johnstown is her hometown and she comes from a “family of grave tenders” (“At the Plot of the Unknowns”). In each of the book’s four sections—“Rain,” “Wave,” “Carry,” and “Flow”—she opens with a guiding poem. “At the Plot of the Unknown” (“Rain”) reveals that “(o)ne of every three bodies found after the/Johnstown Flood of 1889 was never/identified.” “Waterwheel” (“Wave”) is a recounting of an older couple’s narrow escape from the flood and their “marvel of that surging tide.” In “Next to me” (“Carry”), Sabol places herself at the Johnstown Flood Museum, where she settles into the grim process of searching “for a way to tell the tale of how/a doll in gingham came to rest in a small pine box/in the back room of the museum.” “Summer along the Stonycreek” (“Flow”) asks us to “(l)isten now to the river’s patter, reminding us/Not everything is broken.”

An early poem in the collection—“At the South Fork/Fishing and Hunting Club”—yields a backdrop of leisure and luxury for members of the club. They “enjoy a holiday feast of potted game and succulent black bass.” They “gather for dessert” which consists of “Cook’s Independence cake, made with 20 pounds of flour,/10 pounds of butter, a quart of wine and one of brandy.” Sabol skillfully creates distance between the main subject of this poem—a privileged young woman—and the Johnstown residents. It is “beyond (the woman’s) imagining” that “this peaceful lake” could spill “down the hillside, leaving no more than a muddy crater in the earth.” In the poem, the woman contemplates a visit into Johnstown to secure the services of a dressmaker that “all the women are raving about.” That line is a clue to the “Morgue Entry” that Sabol includes at the beginning of the poem:

“From Clubhouse. Female…
Fair complexion. Long black hair. Blue dress.
Plain hoop ring, one set on left hand. Blood set.

Is this unidentified woman in the morgue the same person who was a member of the Club but went into Johnstown on that fateful day? If she is, as Sabol seems to suggest, then her privileged lifestyle offered no protection. She, too, suffered the consequences of a negligent upper class.

As with that poem, I am struck by the ways in which Sabol begins many poems with historically factual morgue entries that are preserved in the Johnstown Flood Museum. Such is the case with “Little Shaver”

Morgue Entry: Male, Nine years old. Black
hair. Short pants with small bottle in pocket.
Watch. Hatchet. Lead Pencil. Shoe buttoner.

Sabol takes that entry and imagines a lively, curious child who is captivated by rising river water that was caused by relentless rain. In her poem, the boy and his friends:

leaned over the rail,
howling into the roar of water getting higher
and higher, flowing at full chisel ‘til
it snatched us right up and dumped us into the swirl.

That poem is just one example of the ways in which Sabol weaves fact with imagination to create a life. It is an effective resurrection and is balanced by the way individual poems inform each other. For example, in “The Errant Husband” she begins with the “Morgue Entry”:

Male. Age forty-five. Weight
180. Height 5 feet 10 inches. White bunch of
keys. $1.13 loose. White bone-handled knife.

In this poem, the husband delivers a message to his wife from beyond the grave, saying

If only
I’d known
the mill would send us—
every last man—back home, and I,
God! in my unnerved state, stopped
by the saloon; just one
whiskey to steady
me; just the one.

Two poems later—“The Poison of Her Mourning”—his surviving widow contemplates the “full year and one day of deep mourning” that she faces. Her deceased husband has left her with limited financial means, and she notes that “(h)is saloon might miss him more. It was his place of refuge/every ordinary morning after a long night turn at the Iron Works, and even that day flooding destroyed the city.” The kicker is that her black mourning garments (customary for the time) are laced with a “mordant/of coal tar, copper chloride, and arsenic.” Her skin. Her vision. Her lungs. All will be “tarnished” as “(m)any a woman has been laid in her coffin by/the wearing of crape.”

There is so much more to discuss from this extraordinary book—the appearance of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton; the “Interview on the Ten-Year/Anniversary of the Johnstown Flood”; the poems about survivors—but it may be enough to say that Sabol’s decision to anchor the poems in factual information, her penetrating observations, and her thoughtful and respectful imagining provide a deep understanding of this American tragedy. The author of six poetry collections, Sabol received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and her short-form work has been short-listed for a Touchstone award. She is the associate editor of Sheila-Na-Gig online and conducts writing workshops for Literary Cleveland. Given climate change and the ever more frequent weather events that lead to flooding, coastal erosion, and lives lost and disrupted, this book is more needed than ever.

Pamela Anderson-Bartholet, a woman in a black sweater with brown hair, sits in front of a bookcase, facing the camera and smiling.

Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Just the Girls: A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies; A Drift of Honeybees (Poetry Box) and Widow Maker (Finishing Line Press), a chronicle of her husband’s cardiac arrests/recovery. When she is not traveling, you can find her practicing yoga or hiking with her husband in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Northeast Ohio.

Instagram: @prandersonpoet