Ann E. Michael
Brick Road Poetry Press
Perfect Binding, 112 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas
I love water. My first choice has always been the salty kind, but I also marvel at the power of a spring-thaw river, the sound of a trickling stream, the serenity of a mountain lake, the complexities of a puddle after an early fall rain.
As I write this review, I am listening to a warm rain meet inlet water, and just beyond that, I can see the expansive horizon of a multi-green Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, Ann E Michael’s use of water (Atlantic Ocean, reservoir, lake, stream, well water, pond, rain, tears, ice and snow – to name a few) in Water-Rites pulled me in immediately to swim through the depths of the collection. Her writing is agile, knowledgeable and accessible—welcoming in rather than repelling the reader away from her intricate use of language, image, theme and subject matter.
Life and death are over-arching themes of Water-Rites and ones that Michael adeptly portrays through images of water, drought and snapshots of personal experiences such as a car trip with her son in “River by River,” exploring the multiple meanings of the word wake in “A Wake,” and sleeplessness in “Sore: 3 a.m.” and “Sleep Moving Through Me.” Life and death were also very present in Ghost in a Red Hat by Rosanna Warren, which I reviewed for the December issue of Poets’ Quarterly.It was interesting to see the similarities and differences in how Warren and Michael explore the natural cycles of life and those events that interrupt them. Both write starkly beautiful poems about the loss of a friend. Michael threads the fabric of nature intricately into the pages of her collection while Warren paints hers with historical and art references. Both accomplish producing collections that are stunning as a whole with individual poems that are vibrant, musical and alive.
Water-Rites is divided into three sections with the first also named Water-Rites, which includes poems about water and drought, spring and birds; ones dedicated to her parents; and ones that speak to and ask questions about God. In “God is a House of Mirrors” the young narrator asks:
If God is infinite, and God is the light, what happens
to the house of mirrors when the museum is empty,
the lights out?
And then a few lines later:
…What if the church is a house of mirrors,
and the people go home, the lights are off?
What if God is only a vast, reflective emptiness?
The title poem, “Water-Rites” addresses drought, over-consumption and waste:
so many parched human beings
desiccating earth and I –
I thought to wash
my trespasses away
in something other
The second section, How Distant the Swan, contains several poems about losing her close friend, David Dunn, including an epistle, “The Way to Ordinary,” in which Michael explains to David what the year is like without him. She equates death and loss with drought, creates beautiful imagery:
July was a long, bricked path.
August was a withered skin, a locust shell, rattler’s cloak.
She ends the poem with:
How shall I hold me up without you? Who will take my/hand,
lead me through grief and into a year of average rainfall,
splendid fruit? I await your answer, with love,
Michael also explores the collision of humanity and nature in several poems in this section. In “The Mourners” a goldfinch dies caught in the railing of a porch, and “The Broken” tells the story of a fawn being hit by a car, a frequent occurrence on the roads of northeastern Pennsylvania.
The final section, Green Going Gold, continues to explore the geography of life and loss while also exploring the physical geography of northeastern Pennsylvania. It opens with a six-and-a-half page poem about the Lehigh Valley titled “The Valley, the Whitetail: A History,” which braids nature with the man-made, just as reality is now in the Lehigh Valley—an interstate bumping up against a grazing field, housing developments built on old farmland.
Suburbs saved the white-tails,
scourged the bobcat, spilled
grass seed over farmland. Crippled us all.
And then toward the end of the poem when Michael speaks of reading about the history of the land:
Those traces remain amid street with curbs, swales,
square miles of roof tiles, strip malls and high schools.
Each section flows with the fluidness of moving water. The poems join together with the energy of of river melding with ocean. The collection reads like a waltz in which the dance partners have studied and practiced until they move together like water. Michael exquisitely co-mingles words, images and stories depicting water (life) and drought (death), which then offers the feelings found deep in the well of loss and the idea of accepting death as a part of rather than separate from life for the reader to contemplate.
Feel the weight of life and loss in the heft of the book. Listen to its language. Dive into its various bodies of water. Wander in a heat-induced daze through its dryness of drought. You will emerge with knowledge, experience, meaning and imagery that will stay with you long after you read the last page and set Water-Rites on your bookshelf.
Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.