Thursday, August 24, 2006



Watermark by Jacqueline Pope
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, N.Y. 2005)

There is a meaningful silence in the poems of Jacqueline Pope that becomes the defining aesthetic of Watermark. Along with images of travel, home, rain, mist, fog, windows, and water, silence weaves through various poems unifying the book with a feeling of hope, longing and loss. From the first poem of the collection, “Raddled,” Pope tells us where we can find her speaker: “the gap where I gather.”

To understand Watermark as a whole and as collection of individual poems we must realize that in Pope’s best work what is left unsaid is as important as what is said. As the later poem, “First Lesson in Silence” attests, even in today’s world of loud, confessional, omnipresent media, the meaningful in life is found in what is implied, in what is suggested, in “leaving out leaving off,” in the gaps of our experiences, our memories and our dreams. To visually illustrate the point, some of Watermark's poems, like the aforementioned “First Lesson in Silence “and the hauntingly playful “O,” contain literal gaps, large spaces between words.

After all, gaps sometimes can be truer than presences. There are feelings and ideas that once stated become a lie. Pope conveys this truth more eloquently in her poem “O” than I can here. The speaker begins with the claim that sometimes the exclamation is “the only one/ that’s suited to my mouth.” Words once thought about, reflected upon, and revised lose the immediacy of the feeling or the idea. Stated words can go stale, but “O” can be “reliable/good as your word, even in the last line.” In the second stanza, the poem shifts from the conceptual to the visual. “O” is “the drum of rain/on the roof, the rasp/ of sorrow at the door/the exclamation of skies.” “O” is the embodiment and the delineation of the overwhelming feeling, the pain, the pleasure, the surprise. As the poem concludes with the lines, “O you are the register/ of leaving, longing after,” nothing needs to be specified because the details would just confuse the momentary for the essential. There are no grandiose declarations in Watermark, no pompous speaker making unverifiable claims about nature, art and life in general (like I can be accused of doing in this review).

In Watermark, there are poems about travel and poems about home. The opening stanza of “Dream on a Train” describes the perfect confluence in travel between movement, time, and discovery:

Drawn on a line
fixed to the future,
drawn to a point,
pulled through a frame.
Drawn to the horizon,
destination deferred.

It is not the arrival that gets us excited about traveling, for we are often disappointed once we get there. It is the movement itself that excites us. The train, better than a ship surrounded by uniform water, a cramped plane surrounded by air, or a car stuck in traffic serves as the perfect metaphor for the process of constant discovery implied in the act of traveling.

Of course, any activity performed too often can become stale and routine, even traveling. The latter poem “Vagabond” serves as the oppositional reflection of “Dream on a Train.” Here the speaker addresses a traveler who instead of finding a sense of discovery “got used to guesswork/ and gesture, looking on blank.” The beautiful, natural scenes, the awe inspiring urban monuments, and the melancholy inducing “Street of Endless Prayer” start to blend into an empty canvas after a point. The sense of escape implied in travel can also become a trap, “where nothing can say/ what you are, where you’re going.” The traveler finds himself “circling a homeless/ town,” looking at “the map/ that leads you out, that leads you on” to yet another town and another place in time. In the time and life experience that it takes to move from “Dream on a Train” to “Vagabond,” one can imagine a person saying to another, “Did we see that in Rome or was it Paris?”

Perhaps this imagined conversation about past tourism can take place at home while looking fondly at an album and thinking unpleasant thoughts. In “From the Album,” a couple sits together doing just that. It may be that the speaker is addressing her partner directly. However, the poem works better as the quiet rumination of a disappointed speaker. The words on the page are hard-hitting, but the tone is too cool, matter-of-fact to reveal a direct confrontation. Instead, the speaker thinks:

There you are, soured
but sitting upright,
the beat of your breath
under lock and key.
You won’t look at me.

The relationship has not been good for a while and perhaps it never was. There is no romantic glorification of the past here. From that start, the partner was uptight, defensive, and standoffish. And what starts bad continues badly.

Despite the strengths of “Vagabond” and “From the Album,” the best poems in Watermark are those in which the speaker engages in a process of self-discovery and self-revelation. Out of the many that fall in this category, the standout poem is “Goodbye to All That.” Pope illustrates how no one else is a match as an oppressor to the mind of the self. The poem reads as affirmation by elimination. “Goodnight, goodbye,/ I undo all I’ve said and done.” The speaker finds herself at an imaginary fork in the road where she promises to change all her limiting habits, “all the evenings spent upstanding/ (wallflower, dormouse, doorflower)/ given the same going over.” She will abandon her “life in corners.” However, what she is leaving for, what that positive alternative can be, we are given no clue. She declares, “Time’s/ worn through, and I’ve resigned.” But as a reader, me thinks the speaker does protest too much. If she is resigning to “all that,” what is she hiring on to? What is she saying “yes” to? By remaining silent about an alternative, the speaker reveals that she doesn’t have one. This is the self making an emancipation proclamation to the self that we are led to believe will not be fulfill anytime soon. Again, Pope’s best poems gain in significance for what they don’t say as much for what they say.


Carlos Hiraldo is an Associate Professor of English in the City University of New York. He has published various poems and reviews. His book
"Segregated Miscegenation" was published in 2003 by Routledge.


Post a Comment

<< Home