Each month Book Reviews Online features reviews of books by Alabama authors, books about our state, and books by local publishers. Simply click the book's title to read the complete review.
“The Myth of Water,” by Jeanie Thompson
University of Alabama Press, 2016
Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Award-winning writer Jeanie Thompson is a brave, bold poet. In The Myth of Water (University of Alabama Press 2016), she presents a remarkable and evocative series of thirty-four poems to tell a deeply personal story of the iconic Helen Keller. And if the concept of historical persona poems wasn’t daring enough, she also tackles one of the prevailing myths about Helen Keller in the book’s title poem.
Who among us doesn’t recall the pivotal scene in the film or play when teacher Anne Sullivan puts young Helen’s hand under the pump and spells out water—and the blind/deaf child learns the concept of language? Yet, in Thompson’s book, the poem “The Myth of W-a-t-e-r” tells a somewhat different version.
It was not a single word and there was no utterance.
You may have your play, your frozen moment in time
if these please you. But understand, Teacher lead me
to the well house to distinguish between water and what
holds it for drinking.
Perhaps the poem addresses only a nuanced discrepancy. That Thompson takes the trouble to write a poem highlighting the distinction, however, says something about this book: It contains careful, deliberate, well-honed lines that reach beyond the ordinary.
The closing lines of the title poem show something else about the collection—these are emotional poems that delve deeper into Keller’s psyche than do mere biographical facts. This poem concludes:
There was a moment when everything came,
that my mind accepted thought like a body
crossing a threshold through the opened door.
It was illumination and joy, then more words until Teacher,
Helen, world, go. Go into your life!
Finding the emotional center of Helen Keller is one of the aims of the collection. As Thompson writes in her preface, she chose to use poetry to find and share Keller’s “simple humanity and great heart” and to “reveal a woman less known than the famous world citizen the public adored.”
Beyond revealing Keller’s great heart, Thompson writes that she was “further inspired by the fact that Helen Keller was born in North Alabama and spent her early life there, as I did. She also experienced a turning point at her sister’s home on Felder Avenue, a few blocks from where I was living in Montgomery, Alabama, when I learned more of her life story.” But Thompson’s preface evidences more than mere geographical coincidence as her motivation for writing about Keller. Thompson has, in fact, studied Keller for years, examining Keller’s biographical materials and exploring her writings. Such diligent study gave Thompson “the window into [Keller’s] world I needed to imagine her as a private woman driven to public service, sometimes at the expense of her own emotional life.”
Given that Thompson’s stated goal is to “give a sense of Keller’s simple humanity and great heart,” the reviewer of her poems faces a tough task. What do these poems tell us about Keller? A chronology of Keller’s life and the explanatory notes accompanying many poems provide a basic account of Keller’s illustrative life. But there’s much more at play than just straight biographical and historical facts: In the poems themselves, Keller emerges, alive, as a vivid, whole, and emotional being who was a passionate advocate for justice.
Keller’s fervor for social justice is a recurring theme here. For example, the opening poem, “Practicing Speech,” recalls Keller’s trip to Japan and her frustrations at practicing a lecture she hoped to deliver:
I keep my face lifted,
forward. My message
simple, not world-
shaking. Just hope
for the sight of unborn children,
a meaningful job
for the blinded veteran,
that we know an answer
to the question What then
shall we do? is within
our grasp, our sight.
Keller’s social conscience is explored further in a series of poems about her visits to Japan in 1948, where she witnessed the devastation from the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an annotation to these poems, Keller is quoted as saying after this visit: “[I]t is a concrete knowledge I have gained, a stern resolve to work for the breaking of barbarism and the fostering of universal peace.”
From Keller’s experiences, Thompson has fashioned other searing and moving poems, including these lines from “Reproach.”
The faces of those I touch
are like the broken rubble under my steps.
I cannot get my bearings.
My country did this
I have touched the blinded soldier,
the knee stump My county did this
and now I stumble on this earth.
As compelling as the poems reflecting Keller’s quest for social justice are, perhaps the real heart in The Myth of Water are the poems about Keller and Anne Sullivan’s relationship. Their mutual devotion is a recurring theme throughout the collection. In “One Word,” Thompson gives voice to Keller’s gratitude to Sullivan: “You had opened all with one word: first doll, / then water claimed me / and I was yours.
Here in “Returnings” Thompson renders Keller’s return from a trip taken in her failed attempt to “try cheating sharp grief”:
A chair, her books, how the room opens for me—
I feel her reach against the fading light.
Pain dares me, locks my fingers against themselves…
I know she reaches out against the fading light.
Lost love is also a theme in a brief series of poems about Peter Fagan, seven years younger than Keller and at one point her secretary. Keller and Fagan fell in love and planned to elope, but the affair ended unhappily. In “This Day,” dedicated to Fagan, Thompson gives voice to Keller’s struggles to recover from the failed relationship:
Into my hand the stars poured light
And I knew you,
or so I thought.
…. your promises
fade into morning’s traffic, until you are no more
than a rumble from the street
While most of the poems in the collection are free verse, Thompson writes one especially moving poem as a modified villanelle. In “Soliloquy,” one of the two repeating refrains is “Just tell them, The Lord needs it.” Rather than repeat verbatim the second refrain, Thompson modifies the language as a reflection of Keller’s healing over the Fagan affair. What begins as the refrain, “Today without you I am as useless as a broken pot” becomes, by the end of the poem, “There will be freedom / today without you, one I loved.”
Yet another poem, “Teacher’s Letter from Puerto Rico,” is a modified pantoum, written about a separation between Keller and Sullivan while Sullivan was convalescing in Puerto Rico. Articulated from Sullivan’s point of view, the poem begins:
I translated the world for you.
Here you need no translation.
In tropical rain and heat,
Wake or dream, free of both you and me.
Thompson is no novice at her art, which is evident from the quality of these poems. The Myth of Water is a worthy book of poetry, brilliantly imagined and skillfully conveyed, which evoke all the senses and leave a lasting, haunting feeling. This is a collection of poetry to be kept, reread, and valued.
The Myth of Water, which has recently gone into its second printing, is a finalist in the 2016 Foreword INDIES Poetry Book of the Year.
Thompson is a graduate of The University of Alabama’s renowned MFA program, where she was the founding editor of The Black Warrior Review. She is the author of several prior books of poetry, including How to Enter the River and Lotus and Psalm. She teaches in the MFA program at Spalding University, and is the founding executive director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a statewide literary arts service organization. Thompson appears at several readings throughout the year in Alabama, and her calendar of events can be found at her website.
by Anne Whitehouse, 2016
Dos Madres Press, 2016
Reviewed by John Vanderslice
For several years now, through a series of thoughtful and quietly beautiful books, Anne Whitehouse has proven herself to be among the most astute and substantial poets working in the United States. It is difficult to think of another writer who is able to combine delicate, pitch-perfect lyricism with such urgent personal material. Whitehouse’s talents and her gentle wisdom are on full display in her latest collection Meteor Shower, a book that may be her most personal yet—and her most affecting.
Throughout Meteor Shower, Anne Whitehouse proves herself to be that rare poet who is unafraid to be emotionally straightforward, who eschews the glitter of fashionable wordplay for something far more necessary and more lasting: a connection to herself and to the reader. It is as if, in her later years, Whitehouse does not feel she has time to resort to the kind of opaque gimmickry of which younger poets have long been fond. Her material is far too pressing for that. And she wants too badly to do justice to that material. By no means does this result in a poetry that does not sparkle on the page. Whitehouse’s poetry not only sparkles but it illuminates; and not only does it illuminate but it evokes wonder. It is difficult to count the number of lines in this book that will bring a reader to a dead, whispery stop, repeating the lines to himself, relishing their power and their turns of phrase.
In the book’s opening section, Whitehouse revisits herself at younger periods in her life; demonstrating not so much skepticism as fascination and profound acceptance. Indeed, often what she emphasizes is how much of the past is not even past—to paraphrase Faulkner—but eternal. In the title poem of the section she says, with appreciation and even awe,
I was a girl who fell in love with an island.
Each time I’ve left here,
something of that quiet, introspective girl
has lingered behind and never left.
On visits when I come across her
she has never gotten any older.
This slurring of past and present is apparent in other poems too, notably “An Afternoon Nap,” which starts as a harmless rendition of the writer sliding into sleep while vacationing by the sea. Unexpectedly she hears a voice calling out “Mama,” directly to her, “through the green summer, / “across the long years.” Instantaneously, she is thrown upon her life’s history as a mother, its struggles and its delights. The poem finally resolves with the confidence that, however fraught an experience motherhood might have been for her, the speaker can move on now, content that she did her best. The last lines ring with an unavoidable double meaning.
In contentment I lay, not wanting to rouse,
in delicious reverie, as if drunk from lovemaking,
languorous and mellow, ready for the fall.
In other sections, Whitehouse reveals that her past does not always, or even usually, bring to mind sensations of sweetness. Indeed, she suggests a variety of extended traumas: the failure of a friend's marriage, and the charged atmosphere of her childhood home, one ruled by an embittered, isolated father. At the end of the poem “A Backward Glance,” in which the speaker has been reviewing old family photographs, she admits that she finds the photographs not reassuring but frankly misleading:
In these captured moments
everyone is always smiling,
and yet I want to weep
for what will happen to us,
for what has happened already.
And yet, the clear project of the book for Whitehouse is the working through of exactly all that “has happened,” the admitting to it all, both good and bad, and in the process to relieve herself and us of the burden of that past, neutralizing its sting. As she urges in “Delete, Delete”:
Delete the urge to suffer
that twisted me in knots,
delete the need to be right,
to have the last word,
to have my own way.
Knowing that I cannot choose
the way my life will end.
Readers will be comforted to know that Meteor Shower ends with the assertion that the struggles of her past have done Whitehouse and the world and her poetry good. Similarly, it can only do a reader good to pick up this eloquent and nourishing book, to read it slowly, to appreciate its wisdom, and to linger over its delicious lines.
John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His historical novel The Last Days of Oscar Wilde is forthcoming in 2018 from Burlesque Press.
By Brad Watson
W. W. Norton, 2016
Reviewed by Don Noble
It was 1996 when Brad Watson published Last Days of the Dog-Men, which won the Sue Kaufman Award; 2002 for his novel, The Heaven of Mercury, runner-up for the National Book Award; and 2010 for the story collection Aliens in the Prime of their Lives, a finalist for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—an average of seven years between books. William Styron’s books, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, are spaced about the same way. Although this is not how a writer becomes a household name, Watson doesn’t let them go until they are right. There should be more of this. Read the complete review…
By Carey Link
Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2016
Reviewed by Harry Moore
A Fairer House Than Prose
I dwell in Possibility—
a fairer House than Prose—.
The thirty-eight free-verse lyrics of Carey Link’s Awakening to Holes in the Arc of Sun probe a world of ambiguity, tension, struggle, and pervasive beauty. Beyond all else, the poems affirm and celebrate the transforming power of poetic imagination. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Anita Miller Garner
Lee Smith published her first novel The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed forty-seven years ago. Since, she has published thirteen novels—more than one making the NYT bestsellers list—and four collections of short fiction. The fifteen concise, artful essays in Dimestore are her first book-length collection of nonfiction, and the glimpses they give us into her life, the writing process, and the American South are in turn artful and funny, poignant and prophetic. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Ed Reynolds
Willie G. Moseley, senior writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine, has recently written an excellent history of Peavey guitars. In Peavey Guitars: The Authorized American History, Moseley presents guitar aficionados with a detailed study of the evolution of the Peavey Electronics Corporation, focusing primarily on the company’s line of guitars and bass instruments. With a background working in his father’s music store in Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1950s (his father did not like electric guitars, instead preferring acoustic instruments) and playing guitar in local combos, Hartley Peavey began his company with an $8,000 loan from his dad after graduating from Mississippi State with a business degree in 1965. Peavey earlier attended Ross Collins Vocational School before entering seventh grade, receiving an age-waiver because his great-uncle—the fellow who invented hydraulic lifts for automobiles though failing to get it patented, thus missing out on a fortune—was an instructor. The kid studied mechanical drawing, radio repair, and how to operate milling machines and lathes. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Tina Mozelle Braziel
Reading Lauren Goodwin Slaughter’s a lesson in smallness reminds me of Jane Hirshfield’s statement about poetry: “…true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island. Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to surface reality, purpose, and will.” The poetry in this lovely debut collection are true poems of this sort. They immerse the reader in stunning water imagery and thrill her with peeks (three poems!) inside the life of the Barefoot Contessa. More significantly, this collection raises essential questions about the nature of our personal lives: Who are we within them? How do we reconcile our expectations for our lives with what we find to be our reality? It is the examination of these questions that reveal Slaughter’s poems to be as emotionally astute as they are beautifully crafted. Read the complete review…
There is a good case to be made for not writing biographies until the subject is dead. Feelings are inevitably hurt. The subject’s family and friends may learn things they don’t need to know. Coach Nick Saban may not like being the subject of this book, but the question most asked about Saban is “What is he really like and how did he get that way?’’ and Monte Burke’s book makes the best attempt yet to answer the question and in a pretty responsible way. Saban did not authorize this book and sit for hours of interviews, but neither, it seems, did he actively try to squelch it. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Jim Murphy
“Why do I love such a city / as this?” asks the observant and bemused speaker of TJ Beitelman’s “Why I Love a City” from the Birmingham author’s just-published second book of poems, Americana. The thought continues: “Do mosquitoes have thumbs? They / should. Where is Carl Sandburg when you / need him? Who are my hog butchers?” Here, and in so many ingenious and surprising places in the volume, Beitelman carefully observes and good-naturedly questions the dreams and realities of Americans and their lore, mindfully engaging all the earnestness and kitsch of the culture in the best traditions of America’s great city poets. Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Koch—and of course, Carl Sandburg—are all present here one way or another, and their collective influence is put to fine use in conversation with Beitelman’s own distinct, contemporary voice. Read the complete review…
By Rex Burwell
Livingston Press, 2015
$17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,
Reviewed by Ed Reynolds
With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
Birmingham writer Kerry Madden is fond of saying, in fiction for young people the writer should run her protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at her. One assumes none of these rocks will hit her in the head and kill her. Gin Phillips follows this pattern. Her heroine, the eleven-year-old Olivia, has just moved with her mom from their home in Charleston, South Carolina, to downtown Birmingham where they moved in with Gram in her condo. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
Among the Swamp People is a combination of memoir, nature writing and personal essay. Key, raised in Point Clear on Mobile Bay, writes of his nearly life-long fascination with the Mobile-Tensaw Delta at the north end of the bay. This is the Lower Delta, not to be confused with the Upper Delta. The Upper, he tells us, has more high ground and taller trees. The Lower is swamp. If you are thrown from your boat, or capsize—and you might as there are numerous stumps, submerged logs, and boats with no lights—or are lost overnight, “it will be almost impossible not to come across an alligator or, worst of all, a cottonmouth…cottonmouths are aggressive and extremely poisonous snakes. There are thousands of them….” Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
T.K. Thorne’s last novel, Noah’s Wife, published in 2011, is set in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea in 5500 BCE. The book is the story of Na’amah, a young woman with unusual powers. Thorne has done, once again, a prodigious amount of research in Jewish and Islamic texts. The novel convincingly recreates the dwellings, utensils, food, business practices, and religious beliefs of the age. Although based on a few Bible verses people are familiar with, this tale is fully imagined and takes great liberties with the Bible story. Lot, for example, is not the virtuous fellow Genesis makes him out to be, not at all. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
German Rocketeers was published by Yale University Press. Monique Laney, raised in Tuscaloosa and Germany, is now an assistant professor of history at Auburn and this book was her PhD dissertation at the University of Kansas, but do not be afraid. This book is accessible, clearly written with an easily forgivable amount of jargon, and should be of considerable interest to citizens of Alabama. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
There can be few Alabamians better situated to write this book than Steve Flowers. In this political memoir Flowers devotes chapters to the major figures of Alabama politics—elected officials such as Wallace, Folsom, Richard Shelby and powerful forces such as Paul Hubbard and Judge Frank Johnson Jr. —and sketches the story of his own life in politics. Read the complete review…