Spaces Unboundaried: The Water Books by Judith Vollmer

The Water Books

The Water Books
BY Judith Vollmer
(Autumn House Press, 2012)

In Judith Vollmer’s fourth collection, The Water Books, water pours, flows, holds and is held in at least one third of the volume, which contains seventy pages of poems. Water slips through spaces unboundaried, privileged in this way that the short life spans of gnats and humans are not. As river, it gives home to otters, gets polluted through what wrongly enters it, serves as “death-trap water knots” for swimmers and rafters unaware, and offers a place to walk into and be sanctified. As wetland, estuary, bubbling spring, and aquifer, water cleanses, and interfaces between river and sea. In cisterns buried beneath dirt and rubble accumulated through centuries over ancient cities, water endures, still cool.

Into water’s flux and constancy, Vollmer’s poems voice outrage over the censoring of grief imposed by the federal government so media could not bring attention to the numbers of war dead (“On the Tarmac at Dover Air Force Base, 2006”); over “canned hunts” where pheasants and ducks have been goggled so the birds would not see death coming to them from the guns of Vice-President Cheney and Supreme Court Justice Scalia (“A Reckoning”); over language that covers up violent death (“A Woman I Meet Translates a Line from Ritsos”), and the unfair labor conditions of crop pickers (“My Orange”).

Into water’s flux and constancy, Vollmer’s poems voice outrage over the censoring of grief…

The contrast between urban life and wilderness forms another motif. Cities are marked by “fryer grease & bar smoke,” “sewer acid” (“Trees at Night”), and “[h]ot pins of light crowning the avenue lamps” (“A Pittsburgh Novel”), Skoal cans and self-starter sumacs that must be cudgeled out (“Cleaning the Alley”). But Pittsburgh and Rome are also culture carriers of the contemporary and ancient as well as sites for relishing friendships and recalling childhood events. Wilderness has disappeared from much of Pennsylvania’s Youghiogheny River basin and Kinzua Bridge State Park and from New York’s Hudson River Valley so that, camping in these areas, the speaker observes that she is “up here in the last of it” (“Kinzua”). “John Muir should be on Rushmore,” she declares in “Rege Is Calling from Tuolumne Meadow,” “[b]ut he’d hate anybody cutting rock face.”

Awareness of aging and death forms a third motif. Concern with aging is keenly present in “New Black Dress”:

Would it be nice to go from youth straight to death
no thin hair loose teeth no mind slipping just the ragbin.

In “Rege Is Calling from Tuolumne Meadow,” the speaker meditates about her brother, who is recovering from

Six weeks out from the white-on-white cube

of ICU & emergency 6-bypass, (micro-twinge behind shoulder
while on treadmill).

Parents age and die. The speaker “whisper[s] to my dead who made me when they were young and taught me to keep a wish even a mini-vision going under the drum-tight clock tower” (“When, on a Late March Evening”). Each parent receives a loving tribute. The war dead return, and too many women die before they’re fifty.

Counterpointing these motifs is love in its many forms: sexuality, the love of family, of camping in wilderness areas, of old and newly formed friendships, of a family field in Poland, of art that endures, like the watery places Vollmer’s volume honors. “Time is so tight” (“My Orange”), The Water Books demonstrates. But against that awareness, “the invisible unsteady / vibrate[s]” (“The Water Carriers”). Mystery vitalizes — the gifts of friendship, of good wine shared among friends, of camping where a bobcat can slip away unnoticed and the “Northern Lights’ // siphons & scarlet wheels / sculpt themselves” (“Camping on the Hudson”). In this volume, Vollmer’s Italian literary companions keep her good company: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elio Vittorini, Giovanni Pascoli, and Giacomo Leopardi. Her translations of poems by the latter two open the second, third and final sections of the volume.

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