A critique leveled at the late Alan Dugan was that his poetry, although consistent across collections, was at times too predictable and never left room for innovation or exploration. While Michael Waters’ career has undoubtedly remained consistent, it is by no means stagnant or predictable, and it’s inspiring when after twelve collections of poetry, he can write so relevantly about subjects ranging from intimacy, desire, the volatility of relationships, and the nature of caregiving in the face of death and the grief that ensues.
Waters’ newest collection Caw begins with a focus on desire and obsession. In “Self-Portrait With Doll (1920-21),” the speaker compares his desire to the desire the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka had with a life-sized doll he made of his former lover, Alma Mahler (the title of the poem is taken directly from the same painting by Kokoschka). The comparison may seem out of left field, but when you understand how obsessed Kokoschka was with Mahler (he had a doll made of her and showed her off in public until he became disappointed and settled for it as a substitution for muse and model), then the ending of the poem doesn’t seem unwarranted:
For this inexhaustible desire
For your lashes and lobes, the vertical
Slash of your navel,
The light strobing the hallow
At the base of your spine…
And for your breath, always your breath
Which keeps us both alive.
Nothing about this lover’s body is extraordinary in the description (a few sharp angles here, some shade of mystery there), but the speaker cannot let them go that easily, and they see them as necessary for continuing life, or at least the life the speaker would like to continue. We’ve all had this type of obsession in some shape or form, and although for some of us the feeling of it might only resurface by remembering a high school crush, for others it is a feeling we are experiencing right now. Blame quarantine. Blame the constant sense of uncertainty. But remember that as social beings, even the most basic of touches can be crucial to how we move about this world. When that is lost or not easily within our reach, then it is not unreasonable to feel life has lost its purpose.
The most distinguishable section of Caw centers around loss: mother of flames, a sequence of 25 poems, focuses on the speaker’s mother and her declining mental and physical health. To say that each poem carries with it as much beauty as it does heartbreak would be an understatement. In “dementia dawn,” we see the way the mother is no longer who she used to be due to her dementia:
pokes all buttons on the bedside clock
till time grown ill no longer blinks
stillborn a.m. sponge-bathes for breakfast
silence tongues the narrow hall
no clatter no scrambled no low hubbub
where are the women who mirror her face
aides sway the confused bruise bone of her
back to the starlit room wrinkled bed
she lies one shoe off sweater wrongbuttoned
While both speaker and reader may see the effects of time on the speaker’s mother, any concept of it has essentially stopped for her. The alarm clock indicates nothing, and after breakfast and being helped back into bed, she merely “[awaits] the arrival of this day / that day this day.” Couple this with the mother’s weakening body, and even the avoidance of something as seemingly mundane as a fall can be seen as a miracle:
when you tumble in the shower
I rush right over & praise whomever
no bones broken only shaken & you
shrunken in your blue bathrobe
aides & nurses wandering off
to never-ending dismal duties
neighbors too to rehearse routine
slumped on the couch you lean against me
then slowly unfold the crumpled
parchment of your body
Lines like those above are precisely why Waters’ poetry so accurately depicts what it means to be human. With concision and narrative honesty, his writing captures the experience of tragedy and triumph simultaneously. By the end of the sequence, the mother has grown smaller than “the length of a wooden clothespin,” and the speaker can only turn the “mirror / off”—the mirror being the literal reflection of the speaker and a reflection of what potentially might await his future (those whose parents develop Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop it themselves).
While Waters so precisely paints the journey and effects of tragedy, he can also depict the importance of family unity, even in the most bizarre of circumstances. “Electric Fence,” which is dedicated to Waters’ 10-year-old son during the first year of Trump’s presidency, has the speaker, a father, being dared to touch his fingers on an electric fence that they have been told not to touch. Where they are exactly isn’t clear, but one can’t help but remember the scene in Jurassic Park where Dr. Grant tests the fence to escape potential raptors. While there is not element of danger related to prehistoric creatures, there is an excitement that the speaker feels when he does touch the fence and feel the “splinter of lightning” tear through his limb and into his son’s (they are holding hands and performing the dare together). The son convinces his mother to join in the “human chain” and the mother concedes, because why not? Willingly agreeing to be a part of being electrocuted may not be the most logical of actions, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be when it is being done with ones you love most. There are many things that we do daily that defy any sense of rationality; Waters merely shows us what it looks like on a more intimate and meaningful level.
Waters’ body of work will no doubt continue to be read, discussed, and studied, and Caw adds to that conversation. It is an important collection that page after page seeks to explore new and powerful ways to convey our relationship with obsession, love, aging, caregiving, and unity in the face of division. Read Waters’ work with the understanding that when you reach the end, you will value the small and large moments equally, and you will realize that you should never take anything for granted.