Book Review: Truth Thomas’s Speak Water

speak water

Truth’s new poetry book

I live in an 1830s mill worker’s house on the Patapsco River in the picture-postcard part of Ellicott City, MD. A year ago, Truth Thomas, guest editor for our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, sat at my dining room table. Before we got down to business with Linda Joy Burke, an LPR contributing editor, two things occurred.

First, Truth heard a train rumbling along the tracks on the high bank forming the other side of the river and ran out to the front porch. He watched it go by with all the delight of a small child. Then, after he came inside and Linda Joy joined us, he told us about the time he was looking in the window of an antiques shop down the hill from my house and two white men driving by in a blue pickup truck hurled racial slurs at him. The juxtaposition of those two things tore my heart.

The latter occurrence served as an impetus for Truth to learn to “speak water,” a term offered with a smile but no precise definition. And made me want to make absolutely sure that I got the right person to review speak water when it came out. That was Joseph Ross, who not only knew about prejudice from being a gay white male but could also turn that into poetry about the African-American experience, as amply demonstrated by “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.

When I asked Joseph if he might be willing to write a review, he said he would be happy to do this. No need to send a review copy. He already had speak water sitting on his bed stand, waiting to be read. Once he finished reading it, this was what he wrote:

If  the word “scripture” means “sacred writing,” then speak water is, in a sense, scripture. Biblical images weave all through this powerful collection. The poems dare to both lament and celebrate, they have both memory and vision.

As in the Bible, speak water divides into two sections. The first, “The Dry Land Earth,” uses images from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The second, “Hand Dances at the Well,” draws largely from New Testament images. But these poems are not religious in the traditional sense. These poems use biblical images, looking back, in order to focus the reader on the present world. This is the collection’s strength: these poems witness and call. They describe our human condition in sometimes searing, sometimes playful language.

The book begins, as you would guess, with a poem called “Genesis.” The poem opens with the biblical creation mantra “In the beginning…” and then hurls us into the present, or near-present.

In the beginning, God made heaven, earth
and Shalanda “Sha Sha” Haywood, born in
Brooklyn, August, 1972—died in Maryland,
July, 2010. None of this you will remember

“Genesis” continues as a kind of creation story, or a genealogy. We learn of a family’s losses and its humanity.

“What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” continues the Genesis imagery in a humorous way. Taking the tempting voice of Eden’s snake, we hear a new version of seduction. This snake flirts with Eve, calling her hips “wide as sky,” naming her a “goddess.” Sadly, we never hear Eve’s response. But the snake urges relentlessly. You can almost see him winking as he says, “Just let me introduce you / to a little nibble. I’m sure God will understand.”

Among the most moving poems in this section is “Auntie.” This poem celebrates a woman’s strength and love. We learn that she “parted coupon seas / at the Kroger.” The speaker and the woman “rode all over segregation’s / feathered carcass.” Finally, in a tender closing, the speaker “snuggled in her side like a rib / returning home.”

I couldn’t help laughing out loud while reading “On Flat Langston’s Escape from Busboys and Poets Plantation.” Here, Thomas writes of an event in the Washington, DC poetry scene where a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes was stolen from a restaurant. This poem is hymn-like in its four-line stanzas and echoes Hughes with its careful rhymes. Thomas stays true to his justice themes as well. The cutout is, after all, liberated from a “plantation.” One almost wants to shout “Hallelujah!”

In the second section, “Hand Dances at the Well,” Thomas continues with poems that move because of their carefully crafted quality. Echoing the first section’s “Genesis,” this section begins with “Sunday Kind of Love,” which fuses the first miracle in John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana, with a modern woman’s challenging life.

Shayna reads the Word and takes
the story of that first miracle as
serious as unpaid electric bills in
winter—

The poems in this section are replete with New Testament images and language. We get hints of the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Mark, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the need to born again and more. Thomas uses these images with a light touch. If these poems preach–and they do–they are not preachy.

We are treated to both craft and insight. In “Sermon on the Block,” he tells us:

Blessed are the homeless who find ATM asylum for
their offering kingdom does not sleep nor slumber.

Blessed are those who do not mourn the death of paychecks:
for eviction shall overlook them like the Passover angel.

“The Third World” struck me as a powerfully written poem using the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as an entry point to consider the effect of lengthy incarceration on a prisoner’s mother.

Woman behold thy son–thy daughter, eighty-sixed in 8 by 6,
leg iron limp–wait, growling gut–wait, food arms wagging
steel door lips for bread of birdcage shit.

This compelling book closes with three poems that provoke the reader to consider the power of race, memory and art itself. In “Revelation,” we hear the African-American game of the Dozens in a reflection on race.

You so black,
eclipses wear you
for sunglasses.

This clever poem ends with a warning and celebration:

so black–so so so
eggplant, banana black, red-
boned, peanut butter, you can

never be
black
enough.

“We Too, The Foundation” takes us back to Hughes and celebrates other ancestors such as Aristotle, Malcolm X, Whitman and Martin Luther King.

This beautiful book closes with thoughts on the power of poetry and art. “Intersections” recalls a reading series of the same name in Washington, DC.

…on a snowplow rumbling
night, art wanders in off the street
to hold its own hand…

We see an art here that

will not “be good.” It will
interrupt you when you are speaking
and not say “excuse me.” It will duck
inside your door and eat up all your
cookies because it is hungry. It is
always hungry—especially here in
Anacostia’s abandoned mouth—

Thomas has created a strong and beautiful book of poems here. For those who don’t know biblical images, some of his descriptions might not land where he wants. For those who are turned off by biblical images, this might not be their book either. But if one gives these poems a chance, they can do what the best poems do: take us deeper into our own lives and deeper into the world.

In his review, Joseph captures the same contrasting aspects of Truth and his world that I witnessed that August afternoon at my home. But he cannot reproduce Truth’s speaking voice from a print book. Since Truth is a singer-songwriter as well as a poet, he deserves to be heard. Here he is reading his work at our Salon Series event. Listening to the speak water poem “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” there was pure pleasure.

Note: You can get more background on speak water from a recent interview. And you can hear Truth read on August 9 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.

LPR at Five: The Two Little Patuxents

With our tenth publication, the Summer 2011 Make Believe issue, we reached our fifth year. Before we dive into preparations for our landmark Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, we’d like to take time to look at what we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Let’s start with our name…

Little Patuxent Review was founded in 2006 by a group of writers residing in the Howard County, MD area—Mike Clark, Anne Bracken, Ann Barney and Brendan Donegan—to fill the void left when a periodical with the same title, started by poets Ralph and Margot Treital, closed a quarter century ago. Here, Donegan shares this thoughts on the link between the Little Patuxent River and the eponymous publication:

Little Patuxent River

Little Patuxent River (Photo: Lynn Weber)

A river, at least in its pristine state, brings delight and magic to those who live within its catchment area. The Little Patuxent River does this magnificently. So does Little Patuxent Review. Look at them side by side.

The river has poetry and music. Gaze from the banks near its rising point and savor the shadows of a few daddy-long-leg spiders cast by the dappled sun on the sandy bottom. Listen quietly as its waters cascade down the rocks at the lofty fall line, splashing into each nook and cranny. The Algonquin word “patuxent” means “water flowing over smooth stones.”

The Little Patuxent River flows through many environs, reaching out to many sensibilities. It rises out of the ground, slowly seeping, not gushing. It picks its way, back and forth, through the low rolling hills of the Piedmont, seeking its way to the edge of a plateau filled with fertile farms and homes, until it reaches the fall line, where it tumbles one hundred and eighty feet to the sandy coastal plain, now to wander, sometimes almost in circles, until it finally meets the Patuxent River, forty-five miles from its source.

Think about Little Patuxent Review as you scroll through its pages: how it brings you into its narrative; how it traces a path for you through poetry, prose, fiction, art and photography; how it opens up your world as a butterfly opens its wings to the delights of the various genres and the talents of the diverse creators.

Take non-fiction. The river, its inhabitants and its environs rigorously follow the laws of science. Savage Mill and remnants of the dam above preserve the history of the sawmills and cotton-spinning of bygone years. Then take photography. The afternoon sun peeks through the crowded trees on the bank of the river, providing a crisp black and white image, almost searing the eye, casting long dark shadows toward you on the ground.

Imagine the river as a story. The narrative begins quietly in a distant separate place, drawing you in as it picks up the pace, flashing you by mysterious farmland holdings and homes sheltered in woodland copses, each with a story to tell, down by huddled masses of houses, through more countryside, reeking with history, right to the edge of the fall line. Without giving you a chance to catch your breath, you are hurled into the air, bouncing off rocks, wondering how you will land. Down you come in the waters below the fall, down, down, down until you finally come up for air. Alive, you are still in the clasp of the river as the story speeds up, pulling you slowly, but surely, towards your unknown destination, first to the right, then to the left, then to the right of a sandy island, the waters around you gurgling as the pace picks up. Then, after a final turn, you round a corner and there is your mother, the Patuxent River.

Brendan Donegan

Brendan Donegan

You can bring the two worlds together yourself by seeking out a warm rock near the falls on the Little Patuxent. Listen to the music of the river and the open your copy of LPR to your favorite page and read it aloud. The river will hear and take delight in it and reply with a few extra watery notes just for your pleasure.

Brendan Donegan grew up beside an estuary in Cork, Ireland. His work was published in The Hudson Review, Preservation and Island Journal. His essay “Over the River: A Journey Down Little Patuxent” appears in the LPR Winter 2008 Nature issue.

Concerning Craft: Jen Grow

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Jen Grow

Jen Grow

Please meet Jen Grow, the new Prose Editor at the Little Patuxent Review and current Administrator at Art on Purpose, a community arts organization.

Her prose has been published in The Writer’s ChronicleOther VoicesThe Sun MagazineThe GSU Review, Hunger Mountain and the Indiana Review as well as in the anthologies Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers and City Sages: Baltimoreand she has co-authored Seeking the Spirit: How to Create a Community of Seekers. She has also taught at Goucher College and the Maryland Institute College of Art and received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Jen’s contribution to the Little Patuxent Review, “The End of August,” appeared in the Winter 2011 Water issue. You can read it here by clicking on the title. Applying a visual artist’s perspective to fiction, Jen writes about the piece:

In real life, I’m a big fan of epiphanies. I like it when I have a sudden revelation that alters my perspective. In fiction, I’m more interested in writing about the slow dawning of change, the incremental shift toward some new life. I am drawn to the silences, the questions that leave the mind wondering, the characters not seen, the conversations not had, the scenes unwritten that are as essential to the story as what is presented on the page. My preoccupation with these small moments, these absences is what led to my interest in negative space.

Negative space and positive space, terms used by visual artists, describe the compositional relationship between the background and form of a painting or sculpture. To determine how this concept translates to fiction, I started researching and experimenting.

Betty Edwards believes beginning painters often assume positive space is more important than negative space. (I believe this is true of beginning writers, as well.) She notes in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, “Beginning students generally lavish all their attention on the objects, persons, or forms in their drawing and then sort of  ‘fill in the background’…If care and attention are lavished on the negative spaces, the forms will take care of themselves.” She adds that something can be “nearly fully described” because the negative space has been drawn.

In fiction, we paint a discernible landscape in which form and background are created with words. A sculptor once scolded me for using the term negative space as it related to fiction. She said, “Negative space is a very real thing.”

I know. That’s what interests me. It’s spiritual in its way, being willing to recognize the importance of such small moments and the influence of all that is seen and unseen. When I write fiction, I’m trying to create a subtle absence that evokes an elusive, mysterious sense or feeling about some form of the human condition by describing the space around the condition without actually naming it.

In “The End of August,” I’m playing with silence. There’s a lot that has transpired between these two characters—a full range of emotions and struggles, a gulf of experiences between them. They know each other well enough not to speak. The conflict between them and the particulars of their history together doesn’t matter. I’m more interested in their negative space that is so packed with emotion. What does that feel like?

The narrator—unnamed, as are all the characters—is struggling to come to terms with her life. The emptiness she feels defines her life as much as the events she’s experienced. The elements in the story—the water and the sun, the breeze, the day closing into evening, the summer passing into fall—are also moving in slow increments. This is a reflective piece, and hopefully one gets the sense that this feeling, these thoughts will lead the narrator somewhere eventually, but today, all she gets is a tiny and elusive bit of perspective.

With the next “Concerning Craft” installment, we will turn our attention to the authors represented in our new Summer 2011 Make Believe issue, starting with poet Clarinda Harriss.

Concerning Craft: Gregory Luce

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet first-time contributor, poet Gregory Luce. Greg was born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in Texas, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Along the way, he acquired a BA in English and an MA in Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University and did additional graduate work at the University of Southern Mississippi. He currently resides in Washington, DC, where he works for the National Geographic Society.

With the publication of two chapbooks, Signs of Small Grace (2010) and Drinking Weather (2011), he joined the literary community as a full-fledged member. Commenting on the recent DC conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), he blogged, “I was deeply gratified to feel myself among my peers, not like the kid with his nose pressed against the window of the candy store.”

Here’s Greg reading “A Decent Happiness” and two other poems at the January 30 launch of our Winter 2011 “Water” issue:

And here are some of his reflections on craft:

“A Decent Happiness” was originally written years ago, while I was still a graduate student in Creative Writing. It makes a good jumping off point for discussing craft because it represents one of my earliest successes in finding my own voice.

Prior to composing this and similar poems, my work was largely the usual beginner’s pastiche of themes, forms and styles picked up from too deep immersion in Romanticism and popular music. I had begun to read such modern poets as Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Creeley, but they had yet to make much of an impact on my writing or even my thoughts about poetry.

The turning point came toward the end of my graduate education. Under the influence of rigorous critiquing from peers and with the help of a close friend and accomplished poet, I began to shed the mannerisms that had obscured my own voice and sensibility. I started looking closely and thinking deeply about elements of craft, especially linebreaks, eliminating excess verbiage, and more conscious and creative use of sound elements, in particular assonance. These components require close attention if one’s inclination is to write free rather than formal verse.

In the absence of fixed forms, I focus with particular care on linebreaks. Breaking lines in different places can slow down or speed up the pacing of a poem, as well as create fruitful syntactic ambiguity, causing the reader to consider the line first in isolation, then as part of a larger meaningful unit.

Equally important for me is concision. Since many of my themes come from the contemplation of emotions that arise from encounters with natural phenomena (especially clouds and skies, rain, bodies of water, wind), excessive words could easily lead to sentimentality. I prefer to compress so that the feeling is suggested rather than telegraphed. I find that this makes for greater intensity of expression.

These two elements—linebreaks and concision—also give my poems a pleasing shape on the page. While I recognize that poetry is a sonic art form, most people encounter it in print form first. I am very conscious of a poem’s visual impact on the reader.

As this poem indicates, I am often inspired by the words of other poets. Several other poems pay tribute to Robert Creeley, which is appropriate since his example more than any other shaped my own thinking about economy of language, taking risks with syntax and careful manipulation of linebreaks.

Many years after grad school, I still turn to discerning readers for feedback before launching a poem. My first and best is my friend and fellow poet Naomi Thiers, whose work also appears in the LPR. In addition, I have made use of my blog and social networking, which have greatly expanded both my audience and my sources of support and useful criticism.

In the next installment of “Concerning Craft,” Naomi Thiers will give her take on what goes into the making of a poem. We will then move on to three prose writers, followed by three visual artists. We are pleased that this series has prompted our readers to look at their work with a fresh eye. Prudence Barry has submitted an analysis of a poem that will be presented shortly, and we encourage others to participate as well.

Reflections on Water

Little Patuxent River

The Little Patuxent River. Photo: USGS

I met a few weeks ago with my friend, massage therapist and poet Lisa Faraone. We welcomed 2011 with an exchange of gifts and a cup of tea.

What serendipity that Lisa put The Miracle of Water by Masaru Emoto into my hands. I flipped through Emoto’s book to check out the photographs of water crystals Lisa promised would blow me away.

Emoto studies the effect of words and ideas on water. He shows or speaks a word–“harmony,” “happiness,” “anger,” “dislike”–to water, then freezes it and captures the crystals on film. The results are stunning. The “happiness” crystal resembles a smiling crab, while the “dislike” crystal is malformed in a kind of grimace.

Water makes up about 70 percent of the human body. Imagine how our physical selves, then, are reacting to the words we speak and the words we hear.

This week marks the launch of the Little Patuxent Review’s Water issue. It also marks our farewell to Editor Michael R. Clark. In his introduction to the issue, Michael writes that water is “the element of dissolution, of change, of flow, and of eternal return.”

The pieces in this issue speak to the deep human connection with water that I have been learning about in Emoto’s book.

Water binds us to places. When we make a change by going somewhere new, we notice the water’s presence, its color, how it feels against our skin. We gather by the water, returning to favorite pools and rivers with friends and lovers. Water is embedded in family stories, as we see in Afaa Michael Weaver’s LPR piece, “The Other Side of Things.”

Water comforts, washes away, but it is also capable of drowning us. The authors we feature point out that water both creates real sinkholes and signifies emotional ones–the times when we feel the bottom has given way and we are fighting for breath.

In Tim Singleton’s profile of abstract artist Christopher Quirk, Quirk says what he seeks in his work is the point where, “The fluid leaves no human mark.” He could be describing the elusiveness of water. We try to capture it in words and images, never quite able to hold it.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase often used when we’ve moved on from a person or situation: “That’s water under the bridge.” I suppose this means an experience has flowed away.

However, when I thought about the phrase more deeply, the accepted meaning is too limiting. The water may have moved on in one sense, but there will always be water under that bridge. Water gives the bridge purpose. The bridge allows us to have perspective on the water’s flow. As the LPR continues to develop, I know that Michael will keep an eye on where the river of words takes us.