Threshold: New and Selected Poems by Cary Waterman
Nodin Press, 2018
128 pgs, $17.00
Review by Ray Marsocci
ENOUGH, AND NOTHING AT ALL
Once upon her collection’s title poem, “Threshold,” composed of fourteen unrhymed couplets before a “singing” one-liner end, an “I” heeds a second-person speaker, who eulogizes with a first-person self, whose poetry stages the poem’s place, to where “I” has returned. Except the poem is no place, the second-person proclaims. This “you” sees the poem, this poem, is not a something, but rather “a silence” beneath the “noise” of what “news” greets “I” there now, amid life’s “latest disasters.” The poem becomes that “silence,” its words composing a “facsimile” response to those “disasters,” and feeling like mere “mannequins” which pose as if “someone’s there,” “not seeing,” even while turned, looking “your way,” through a four opening-couplets’ stage curtain.
It’s to where I’ve come too, sorta. A “threshold.”
About three years since Cary Waterman first published Threshold, her sixth book, a “New and Selected Poems,” and I think six since we met, in a Creative Nonfiction workshop at the Vermont College Postgraduate Writer’s Conference, I’ve read the collection again, and at last understand, or at least differently comprehend, the life demarcation her book subjects. The divide comes clearest in the “silence” she considers her title piece to be, “not a poem,” as it appears like on the page, but that line itself, marking where we are grown into and who we wanted ourselves to be. This “Threshold” appears maybe two-thirds through the book, the final work in the middle of the three sections her “new” poems comprise. From there, Threshold both looks back, at a literary poetry lifetime, and ahead, at where all life’s last vestiges arrive.
The title poem gets met there by the “news” that a “friend’s daughter is dead,” and how this girl
The girl’s breaths end in the white space between a tenth and eleventh couplet, Waterman letting the stanza’s break say anything empathy and compassion cannot. Reminders of one’s mortality can do that, leaving any of us to pause in reconsidering each our own growth toward our passing.
Except the poem does not allow for such pause: without line-end, the first-person speaker learns
Another friend is on dialysis,
passing from empty to full every other day.
A dissipating comes over the poem, and a consumption. “Sometimes,” the “I” ruminates, just “sitting in [her] chair,” she is “there and then I’m gone,” like an imaged-flit staged with the alliterative, soft “th” consonance.
Yet “I” has gone “someplace else, some other life,” where another alliterative consonance, a hard cee this time, sounds, “careening toward completion.” It’s an echoing, this couplet, hearkening back to the poem’s fifth and sixth stanzas, where “I” had realized
Sometimes it seems like
I’ve come back from the dead.
That I’ve been gone but now
When confronted by life’s “latest disasters,” all the “I” has is poetry, which is at once enough and nothing at all.
The collection’s title takes on a new meaning: the poet comes to this “threshold” with lore and its imaging. These maybe become commiseration for the friend on dialysis and memoriam for the friends’ daughter who died, something, yes, but really, what? An entry, sure. A passageway. In light of one’s lifetime, a beginning.
This, too, is where I’ve come in my own life: about three years after Cary Waterman sent me her book, I’ve presumed for me to review it, I moved again; took on new employment, again; brought myself to my own life’s “threshold,” again. I moved on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday and his death day. I went north again, to Vermont’s small, non sequitur city, Burlington, walking distance from its Church Street shoppes’ charm and dire, lake-effect cold. I was hired to manage a homeless shelter, which in leading into the state’s re-opening from the Covid shutdown, following Vermont’s great success in weathering the pandemic, was in agency a progressive definition of what “essential worker” means. I still eschew the term: I am old, and lonely, and aware I will die soon enough, if not of old age, then of a cluster headache’s chronic, clouding percussion. I “just” want to go out helping others; doing for them. Making sure they are okay. By conservative definition, a something self-serving. Yet by liberal, a something self-serving my heart.
On the sixth day after coming, I dizzied while out walking, and fell, passing out. A someone, a man, social-distanced me, kneeling near my collapsed me and jostling me alert with his voice alone, not touching me. I stammered up, disoriented. I wobbled, maybe even weebled. Like a miasmic palimpsest filled my sight, as the man gentle-talked me across that street, to a bus-stop enclosure, where I could sit. He left, and slowly re-orienting, I looked up, and realized the bus stop was on Pearl Street, one block from Church Street, the opening to the several-block pedestrian mall, with all those quaint shoppes and eateries, in all their pretty-city charm.
A “threshold,” y’ know, all of my coming here. A place from where “I” can only look ahead, at into “a silence,” maybe musing some with a “you” inside my head, who would only be myself anyway, and somehow try and convince myself that, in reaching here, I’ve accomplished anything more than giving up on myself and my life.
Six weekends later, mid-June, a woman jumped out a window of the shelter’s top floor. A slight woman, barely sustained, she is someone I’d needed escort from the premises on multiple occasions. The window out which she climbed is actually outside the room of one of the house’s two residents nearing death, with Stage IV cancer. The other ended his chemo in mid-May; this man, once a Kentuckian Elmer Gantry preacher, had harbored the woman in his room, I suppose like she was some Anne Frank, while he was at a radiation treatment. He’s a storyteller, this one. Like with reading Lewis’s novel, or remembering a young, gorgeous, and not-Partridge-singing Shirley Jones from its movie, I feel entertained by him, even while the cancer erodes his voice to descant garble. Others in the shelter, like both the dying men, seem to respect me. They thank me for cleaning up after them, and let me check up on them, apologizing while breaking the shelter’s basic tenets, but most seem to want me to remain aware about whether their breathing has not “just stopped.” Yet they do not trust me. Not completely. Which I understand: they cannot. Not in the position I am in, the role I serve.
Or as Waterman’s poem ends, following her contemplation of her friends’ “disasters” and her own “threshold,” she understands anew that this is “not a poem,” nor either a “drowning” nor a “fence” that will “keep [her] out” from the lyric verse her “selected” early works showed. It is but an “invitation” wherein I might sing. Well— At least to myself, I can sing. My voice is not something that can help anyone.
From her first book, ’75’s First Thaw, Waterman has used poetry as like a script for actually imaging life. Early on in her work, she shows this through “Domestication,” its play wherein
a voice rises like an arrow
from the woods,
half something else.
Or as in her second book, The Salamander Migration, from 1980, a body’s slow going into an adult world and “Getting Old,” its seventh selection, which shows how, from the “marriage blender,” “things continue to fall from” a couple’s aging, public façade.
The next year, ’81, Waterman published Dark Lights the Tiger’s Tail, from which she only selects three short pieces, each afflicted with something of aging’s “old season” maladies, including the nature of my life’s greatest bane, “Insomnia,” in which
Darkness shreds a corduroy sleeve.
Children sleep. Bats go crazy
in the chimney, screeching, sounding out
the “electric night” which “intones” a body’s “private sleep” and the “hole of silence” that as if “waits” for the sleepless speaker’s dawn. The bane is more a belfry, or at least contained in one, wanting “out.”
Waterman’s “selected” opening to her fourth book, 1992’s When I Looked Back You Were Gone, begins hearing “The New Language,” in which an “I” considers “you,” who “this morning” is “gone,” “farther away” than “ever before,” the other’s “chasing the sun” gone and as if from the speaker’s own grown-distant youth. “Divorce” follows and
… the way sometimes
I do not know who we are.
It’s a “late light” now, one where an apparently still-young son, instead of staying with his mother in her separation, goes out to play “Dungeons and Dragons,” with its “better world” and where
people do not marry or divorce,
where there is no sex,
Waterman remembers her “Father’s Last Game” in this collection; an “Unread Book”; the “Vietnam Memorial” and “A Topology of Sad.” She visits with “Antigone in Armagh, Northern Ireland, 1984.” “Raising Lambs” at this selection’s end, she comes to an acceptance that
… unfailing arms that take hold and love us
until we know none of it anymore.
That “invitation” has come, and while she lives far still from her “threshold,” she struggles now, her poems do, with an awareness of this place, how it means.
Her fifth book, The Book of Fire, from 2011, engages with what’s been a learnéd lifetime; with mythology and the seasons, specifically about Persephone: Waterman is placing herself in the literary canon she worked her lifetime trusting, with words, unto “The Labyrinth at Epiphany,” a three-part, four-page poem, wherein the speaker “can hear” how the “snow continues,” lifting a “veil of blue air between us” and the “one more revolution” into and from which
There is only one way in.
Only one way out.
The body’s passing is that “only one way.” Death is.
Waterman’s “new poems” section opens here, collected in three parts, each longer than her books’ selections. The first section looks at “Fairy Tales” and how “Beauty Is Not Enough.” “There Is Always Enough Dark Here,” while “I” is “Listening for Sinatra,” or a “Guardian Angel,” or even “Noah’s Wife,” whose apparent patience with her husband’s prescience helped shelter us all in where we have gotten. The middle section, which ends at the collection’s title poem, brings the Demeter, Penelope, and Persephone myths into Waterman’s reflections, Persephone having appeared in her “selected” works as well. The book’s ending section seeks warmth now, as if imaging the body’s aging into its own dying, traveling to Mexico and Southern California, those places’ sunlight-enough to guide us from our “threshold,” and she hers. The light brings hope, that there is something more beyond, a quiet perhaps, as the words sound what was wished for at “Threshold,” not really a place, “but a linen invitation to the singing.”
“To the” lyrical, in uplift. A wish to accept the “invitation,” come as it does in “linen,” a nicer fabric for going.
Okay, heaven on earth in this book becomes the U.S. Southwest and over that “threshold” into Mexico. But really: it’s all any of us want at our end, some peace unto our own coda. I know it’s all I want anymore, even as I cannot sing, and nobody wants to hear me. Yet it is a “threshold” still, and still, it is living, and it is living with a heightened awareness of not.
The woman who jumped survived. I can look up and scansion the line she leapt, from three, white-spaced flights above, onto and then off of my cornerstone apartment porch’s eave. Almost upon earth again, she seems to have enjambed with the wrought-iron rail which helps triangulate a small garden plot bedded downside that porch’s steps. Some sort of barky conifer climaxes an apogee there, and mulch sweetens the bed’s detrital cover, beneath branches through which she seemed to have shred in reaching a stabbing surface. She lived, but my word, she must have hurt in reaching this landing.
Waterman’s entire collection, I realize, three years later, is about poetry’s “silence,” even as its words work, imaging shape. We all need to feel some instance of hope, sure, except that’s ‘just’ more “silence” arising from within each our own self. We all need to arrive at our “threshold,” and if not sing ourselves composed, then have at least an “invitation to the singing” awaiting us, its maybe coming in “linen,” in kind fine.
Waterman arrives at her life’s Threshold, and becomes aware that she was. Like from Shakespeare, sure. She was, and even if the “news” from her world’s “latest disasters” brings with it “a silence,” imploring words, all that she has known, these are not “not was.” She has arrived, at her last, and those words are her “singing.”
Ray Marsocci practices aging, not learning well what his body has long begun to understand. Meanwhile, he manages a non-transient homeless shelter in northern Vermont, where it gets mighty cold, even in this era of pandemic politics and climate change.