The smell of crayons in a first grade classroom. Red toadstools under a gum tree. Those minuscule pieces of memory that we can’t shake often give way, for poets, to poems—sometimes as a “trigger” that initiates the piece but does not stay in it, other times as the unassuming vehicle of the poem’s insight.
The poems in Stacey Waite’s new chapbook the lake has no saint fit the latter category: twenty-six deftly molded moments laid end to end, a finger crooked to invite readers into the haunting geographic and mental landscapes traversed by the speaker.
Waite’s poetic gift lies in the choice of details for each poem—an ability to put a finger on a near-synesthetic instant of perception and let that little detail break your heart with hardly an overt expression of emotion. The lines “the book shelves are weighing on me. the candlewax two months hardened,” gives readers the extent of the speaker’s grief before the narrative details unravel (16). Likewise, “mostly it was the loneliness that got to me—the long dark lines of the back shed door” juxtaposes an abstract feeling with an image so imposing and bleak, solitary and dark that it pierces the reader’s spirit (5). To choose words so emotionally wrought in sound and image is true mastery of tone.
Likewise, Waite renders physical intimacy in subtle, dexterous gestures that draw out the power of each motion for the two lovers. Waite’s speaker has a “mouth pressed into the pull of her body”; the lover’s hand “drafts my body/in halves” (17, 18). Even the poem titled “when after she guides my fingers,” whose title runs into the first line of “out from the red memory of her body,” is beautiful rather than graphic for its own sake (28). What these brief moments show us is that these lovers are inextricable from one another, even when separated physically.
Their love story represents one half of a dual narrative driving the collection forward—the other being the speaker’s struggle to reconcile body and gender identity. Keats spoke of poetry that had “palpable designs” as undesirable, certainly if they actively seek to instill in the reader some opinion held by the poet. In this instance, Waite’s intentions—questioning the strictures of gender—offer insight rather than opinion, and are carried out with both ironic humor and sincerity. At a drag show, “drag queens called me “handsome,” giggled when I pulled out their chairs and lit their cigarettes,” yet she returns home to a mother who asks, “where could you have gone dressed like that?” (13). Younger, and less courageous, the “chalk of androgyny” sticks in her throat when forced to use a women’s restroom solely because of her biological sex. These questions open the collection, but eventually dissolve into the shifting currents of the relationship between speaker and lover.
The poetic forms in the lake has no saint are as much an experiment as the speaker’s attempts to grasp at gender. Waite predominantly employs the prose poem form, but intersperses a handful of traditionally lineated lyric pieces throughout. The prose poems spin the syntax longer and looser, building sentences that span three lines or more. The play of unpunctuated phrasing demands a line to be read over and over to grasp its movement–a task that may frustrate some readers, and enthrall others. The most successful poems in the collection are among the lyrics: “when in winter you bring home white lilies” describes how “we lean out the window/into the city rivers/how they wrap us/in their water arms” (22). The collection’s final poem pleads “I’ve hung prayer flags/from the roof of the house./I’ve turned over the soil/in the flowerbeds. please./there isn’t any more/I could ask of you” (29).
The narrative arc of this brief collection is clear and consistent with only one minor deviation. “when you wish you had not said” offers a relevant insight—what we say and lasting regret—but the moment does not seem quite right for the speaker’s own story. It is someone else’s moment, retold secondhand: a brother attacked by a dog that is later put to sleep, the father’s misguided statement of comfort reminding the brother of the dog’s death. It is a fine poem of its own merit, but the caution against regret would carry more weight in the context of the manuscript if it came from the speaker’s own experience.
the lake has no saint ends with forward motion—having done everything possible to entreat the lover’s return, the speaker remains watching and waiting. To be caught somewhere between grieving and hopeful is universal and, we hope, as transient as ripples on a nameless lake.
—— THE LAKE HAS NO SAINT
By Stacey Waite Tupelo Press
Paperback, 9781932195811, 31pp