Trouble the Water
I’m fascinated by the adjective inhuman. Applied to non-human subjects, it is redundant; applied to human ones, it is false by definition. It’s the tautology of how a thing is never more or less than itself that guarantees the falsehood. Nothing that is human can be inhuman. And yet even if you resist the most grotesque and oppressive instances of how we’ve applied the term inhuman (just think of the crimes humans justify against other humans thereby), it’s difficult to deny the temptation to describe human things as more human or less human, even though I know perfectly well how treacherous this can be.
Part of this is just the inevitable consequence of defining things, but part of it is also the desire to preserve the value of some attributes by either affording them a special status or denying that status to anything from which they are absent. To say, for example, that charity is a necessary quality of a Christian and that a Christian who lacks charity is no Christian at all. Compassion, I think, belongs in this category; I want to believe that anything that removes compassion thereby compromises humanity, even as I admit that just isn’t true. I know that a human person with no appreciable compassion is simply a human person I don’t have much use for, not less of a human altogether. Nevertheless, things do get sheared away by circumstance, and exigency, and hardship, and while what remains is no less human, it still might be…less.
I mention all of this because Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water is the book of poetry that moved me the most profoundly in 2016, and while much of that power derives from its effortless and unapologetic beauty, it moves me mainly by virtue of being sad. Sadness, too, is one of those things that remains meaningful even when its more elaborated or elevated forms eclipse that core: grief, mourning, despair. It’s not as if echoes of these don’t inform the book; it’s that the register of speech occurs not in the immediacy of these states but between them or in their aftermath. Austin’s poems are bounded by conditions of extremity, but unfold, with delicacy and in repose, between those conditions. Sadness, then, is like distant, flickering heat lightning between blinding, explosive bolts. I know there’s no reason why sadness should strike me as more moving than, say, rage; both are justified and both will have plentiful cause for the foreseeable future.
And of course sadness and rage are not mutually exclusive; there’s something of the relationship between the two that reminds me of the relationship between major and minor keys. The latter are famously associated with evocations of sadness, but no agreement exists as to exactly what aspect of minor keys provokes that response. The easiest and safest answer is precedent: notes that remind us of sad songs sound sad whenever we hear them, and, magnified by culture and time, the keys themselves become functionally synonymous with sadness itself.
It’s here, however—how the effect is achieved and the content associated with the effect intersect—the aforementioned “effortless beauty” grows complicated. Consider this small excerpt from the poem “Okaloosa”:
Seaweed and creamy foam
float on the tide’s restless lapping,
licking my feet like a lost dog.
The beauty here doesn’t rest in the imagery, which is general enough to be easily sheared into simpler pictures or torqued into more bejeweled ones. It rests in the small, patient accumulation of easeful sounds: the long e in “sea” and “weed” and cream-y, the consonance of “foam” and “float,” how the possessive s hushes back and forth in “restless” and the stresses of “restless” and “lapping,” how the addition of “licking” almost perfectly doubles the action of the preceding word, how “feet” echoes that prior long e and finally how the lines conclude with “lost dog,” one of the most perfect near-rhymes in common English usage. All of this leavens familiar scenes and references of melancholy (the seashore, the lost dog) with a care that isn’t strictly necessary, but doesn’t strike me as gratuitous. It strikes me as a perfectly calibrated loveliness, neither strained nor facile. It might make more sense, then, to describe the beauty not as effortless but as betraying just enough effort. Anything less and I would suspect the writer of a calculated erasure of complexity, but anything more and I would know the writer was working to make of the moment more than it might readily bear. Each option is as much an artifice as the others, but it’s only that lightly and briefly described middle approach that I encounter and wonder Why bother to do this? and then immediately ask myself Why not do it?
It’s that latter question, the question of alternative approaches, of other ways one could feel, that gives Trouble the Water much of its power. Even if the book never poses the question directly, Austin’s love of beauty and the care he affords each act of description creates a phantom text, one in which the themes—loneliness even in intimacy, of faith despite a silent and inaccessible divine—suggest utterly plausible reactions that the poet eschews in favor of calmer, more measured and yes, sadder and more beautiful responses.
For example, in this section of “Catacombs of San Callisto,” Austin considers the history of God’s body and of queer bodies in a place that invites the former while implicitly denying the latter:
He’s never Himself in the earliest frescoes:
the shepherd boy guarding the sallow lamb
whose fleece might hide the god. Or the fish
and bowl of loaves. Or the phoenix.
He isn’t Himself, yet I trust Him.
I’ve walked alone with a man in the dark
and made much of his body—
you’re with me now, touring the nests of the dead.
We’re told by books as old as these walls:
Filthy, our bodies, yours and mine. Not so.
I love that “Not so.” It’s a refusal, and not a contingent or hesitant one, but it isn’t a refusal born of rage, although rage is justified, nor is it a shout, though the refusal is one that needs to be heard again and again. But here it is simply a denial of the false, confidently and quietly made, informed by a faith so pronounced it acquires peace, which is not equanimity or acceptance. He isn’t Himself, yet I trust Him. I love, too, how the use of the second person and the collective first can encompass both the man and God, equally suspect but also made equal by that “Not so.”
This calmness, rather than have a flattening or numbing effect, enables great tonal variations. In “Byzantine Gold” Austin deploys it to droll effect:
a mortar leveled Gethsemane,
Visigoths defaced the deposition, and,
hem unraveling, poor Mary’s going to pieces,
pocked by shrapnel from a mislaid bomb.
If the dome
cracked open, what a dry comb it would be.
This is ironic and sharp, but it isn’t cruel; “poor Mary” recognizes the absurdity in conflating the representation with the figure, but the sympathy isn’t illegitimate, and we believe that, all else being equal, a world without mortars and bombs is superior to one with them. Note also how both “Catacombs of San Callisto” and “Byzantine Gold” display the same measure of care in the construction of their sounds, the unfolding of iambs into anapests in the former, the rhyme of pocked and bomb, bomb and dome, pocked and cracked, and the final, exquisite “what a dry comb it would be.”
Would it have been possible to inhabit these ideas with the same emotional resonance without that kind of beauty? I don’t think so, because I think the time and attention the beauty requires is part and parcel of the sadness and the wisdom. One would have to perceive the beauty in the first place, but more importantly, one would have to believe that it was worthwhile to include it, that it would be somehow wrong to shear it away.
Several of the poems in Trouble the Water are given over to the ecology and communities of the Gulf Coast in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and that would seem as good an occasion as any to forego beauty and speak, if such a thing is even possible, plainly. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to believe that depictions of crimes of that order, and of the people who bear their costs, deserve beauty even if the crimes themselves are ugly. What Austin practices, though, and what his poems convince me to believe, is that any refusal to see or make what loveliness you can faithlessly degrades the very thing you hope to preserve. To that end, the beauty isn’t something you impose, but rather something you are merciful and loyal enough to allow. So even here, in “Dominion,” Austin chooses to call poisons poisonous but to do so exquisitely:
But I have this against you:
and lesioned fish belly up in booms.
Men in hazmat and business suits
roped off the coast
and authority was given to them over me.
They said: The spill will clear,
neither will there be tar balls
nor dispersants. These will be washed away.
What is plain is the anger at the violation of the flora and fauna, the grief in contemplation of the local human costs, the contempt for the chicanery and deceit of the event’s authors. Yet the passage is also gorgeous, arch, funny and sad and cruel, drawing equally on themes of subordination and biblical rhetoric. The argument that can be made against this is that pure sentiments should require primary colors and major keys, that there is no room in rage for beauty and subtlety, but I think that is fantastically wrong. I think that to believe such a thing is to believe there is no room in rage for sadness itself, made as it is of beautiful and subtle feelings and complicated tones. Minor keys are not less than major ones; due to their intricacy they are in some ways greater than major keys in that they are composed of more and can encompass more.
If I focus on this theme to the expense of so many of the other extraordinary things that occur in the book, it’s still worth asking if a persistent sadness doesn’t also risk becoming a monotone. But there are features of Austin’s powers of attention that prohibit monotony, especially his aptitude for selecting the optimal, perceptible detail to suggest a whole that might otherwise be too much to register. Indeed, a recurrent sensation in Trouble the Water is of accumulation, of the sometimes overwhelming wealth of sensation the world can offer. In “Pass-A-Grille” the same landscape referenced in “Okaloosa” manifests as a list of distinct sensory treasures that become commensurate with the medium that threatens to make them indistinguishable:
I look for you on the storm-smoothed shore,
glittering where the moon tows itself
across the bay. Cool air fills my lungs with mint
as I walk past sea oats, past sea grapes
in tidal pools. Waves spread
like playing cards—a flush the land can’t beat—
and the sea keeps upping the ante: first,
quartz and chrysolite, then breakwaters
and wooden weirs, then the land itself,
an erosion so ceaseless I too want to give
my body, wholly, to something else.
The desire identified here, which is a desire to be subsumed as a testament to one’s sense of the capaciousness of that to which one would be subsumed, requires a certain bravery to admit. It is no less human to present oneself as infinitely armored, or to sacrifice one aspect of what one loves or believes to allegedly serve another, but it’s still…less. By choosing to remain loyal to everything of which he is comprised, Austin presents another path. In “Vespers” he writes:
Lord in the pigment, the crushed, colored stones.
Lord in the carved marble chest. I turn away
from art. You are between my eye and what I see.
Forgive my errant gaze. Tonight, I can’t sleep
and won’t frighten the deer in my peonies.
Like children who rub their grimy hands over everything,
they only want to touch and be touched by grass.
But there is nothing in this errancy to forgive. It is bittersweet, yes, and sad, to know equally art’s pleasures and its limits. But what is braver, more true, more completely human than refusing to renounce who you are by refusing to renounce how you perceive and make, how you find the Lord in the crushed, colored stones? How you find Him even the grass, which all flesh is, and of which Austin has found a way to weave a glory both mortal and everlasting.