“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.