Reviewed by Emily Taylor Merriman
Jacquelyn Pope's first book of poetry, Watermark, coheres: her voice is mature, and the tone is strong and even throughout. The cover image, an intriguing old map of Amsterdam, grounds the reader in the world of the poems, many set in the Netherlands, where the American poet lived for seven years.
The first of Watermark's three sections establishes the atmosphere of living as “other” and as “wife.” In poems like “Woman in Translation” Pope describes the experience of being transplanted and needing to learn other ways of living: “Let me / be written into this world: / something of substance / behind me now.” The second section explores ongoing adjustment and beautiful, strange flowerings, in “Ghostlily,” “Iris,” “Anemone,” “Tulips.” Departure and loss mark the final section, but with a narrative undercurrent of time's renewing force. This section also meditates on home, as when she writes, “I've settled with dust / and disbelief. I'm home” in “Letter in Two Drafts.” Pope reimagines her past for the reader, who is invited to experience intimately the sensory and mental world that the poet once inhabited, and, through the poem's re-creation, can inhabit again in spiritual form, even as a “devoted old ghost.”
The opening poem, “Raddled,” explores life's dynamic movements between separation and connection, dissolution and integration. The collection develops these simultaneously embodied and psychical movements through an impressive range of poetic forms, including a prose poem, “Red Scarf.” Pope makes good use of internal rhymes and alliteration. Some of the poems (“Hoogstraat,” “Vagabond”) are tightly woven; in others (“Iris,” “First Lesson in Silence”) the syntax starts to unravel. This range of formal textures inhabits the broad territory now open between the competing powers of the traditionally formalist and the experimentally “free.” At the same time, Watermark stretches the conventions of the mainstream personal lyric.
Pope's poems often enact a transformative movement, most often a descent (“Persephone Descending,” “Woman in Translation”), sometimes a rising (“The Baker's Wife”), and often a horizontal movement--for example, out to sea (“Hoogstraat,” “Rain Diary”). In the final stanza of “Dwelling,” Pope succeeds in keeping still and moving up, down and out all at once:
Under blankets, under beams
we sheltered by blank windows
tucked under roof tiles
and chimney stones, under
the briny air, its muddied stars.
The frequent descents suggest the influence of Weldon Kees, and the lively poem “Mrs. Robinson” is a response to Kees, simultaneously an act of homage and an implicit remonstrance at the marginalization of women in the world of the Robinson poems. There are also echoes of W.H. Auden (“I asked for hope, and no hope came”), of Sylvia Plath's sharp humor (“You wouldn't stick by the likes of me, / but you do, you do”), and of Adrienne Rich's determination to glean and grow from the past.
In Watermark, time and weather bear down on the human psyche. Time sours, but also heals: “Time cured me past caring.” Scars are “weathered by the dark”; one can become “wind-grown.” Many of the poems succeed in moving between the realms of cityscapes and seascapes in the outer world, and landscapes of the unconscious. These scenes do not merge, but flow into each other--like the fresh water into the salty sea, the poetic line into the poem, reality into imagination--as in the powerful final poem, “World's End”:
One day I shall walk out and cross the sea
and crossing it shall carry me from tides
below the oyster shell of sea meeting sky
and I shall come up on the other side--
back of beyond, a land covered with frost,
studded with fires.
The last line, “I'll come alive in the wrack of the sea,” is an unsentimental assertion of survival, a subtle reference to poets like Kees and Hart Crane who have drowned, and even an apocalyptic vision in which, post-tempest (and the last section is full of storms), this great globe itself shall dissolve. The word “wrack” here is excellent, incorporating seaweed cast on the shore (a metaphor for the unavoidable detritus of each lived life, for destruction, for the ironic eventual “wreck” of the sea itself--place of so many shipwrecks) and the “rack” (wisp of cloud) of Shakespeare's “leave not a rack behind.”
Pope is particularly good at evoking the experience of being a woman participating in heterosexual domestic relations (“The Good Wife,” “Dwelling,” “The Baker's Wife,” “Persephone Descending,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Furiouser and Furiouser”). “Household Economy,” written in cookbook second-person, employs a clipped iambic pentameter, with lines that often lose the opening unstressed syllable, in illustration of the poem's purported message: “Begin by paring back, by peeling down . . .” In the penultimate line, “Cut down or turn out whatever wears out,” the poem's first spondee aptly interrupts the iambs, as if the rhythm of the verse were itself wearing out. The last line yokes the poem's themes of keeping house and keeping silent: “save your breath for shaping mending words.” The meanings of “shaping mending words” multiply: words may mend; words may need to be mended; the woman poet may need to speak up, or be quiet, for the sake of peace in her home, and she also needs to write. Jacquelyn Pope's poems are at once recipes, whose ingredients are carefully selected and kept words, and the spicy, savory, or even sour meals that those words--cut, stirred, and simmered--create.