Reading Drink, it’s easy to see why Laura Madeline Wiseman is such a prolific poet, having published four full length collections as well countless chapbooks and collaborative works in just this year and the last. With the kind of musing that might generate a few poems or a short series for most, Wiseman digs deep and finds the kind of traction that produces full length work. Drink in particular, draws its inspiration from mermaid lore and interrogates their mythology holistically, personally, and powerfully.
To say that Drink is only about mermaids however would be quite the oversight. Like diving for undersea treasure, the heart of the collection lies far beneath the surface. Once immersed in a California childhood, experiencing the beauty of an underwater world deftly transitions to the struggle of fighting to keep head above water, a struggle for which the young girls have a developed a vocabulary for that both reaches for understanding and understands all too much. This education, as harder lessons often will, comes from the people they can’t escape; the poem “Deadbeat Dads,” for example begins: “We were schooled in the warnings, the threat/of violence, a body launched from a moving car, bruises up and down an arm, a pregnant belly.” By contrast, the example of the girls’ mother, in the poem “Welfare Queen,” teaches them “the perfume dabbed at throat, the husky voice,/our hands reaching to touch another’s warmth,/the bikini top, the easy to unstring bottoms, desire.” Even as the collection moves away to other topics, the haunting wreckage of those memories continues to float to shore.
Despite its mercurial content, the book never lies in murky territory. Always sharp and direct, Wiseman has come equipped with a marine grade spotlight to put her images on display, allowing the wit and starkness of those illuminations to speak for themselves. And they do. “Pariahs,” for example, opens with:
Because when we moved there were always others,
men who wanted to feed us hot apple slices
from their fork, or who rubbed our thighs inside
out Disney sleeping bags until we awoke, or who slid
their hands into our underwear, we grew teeth,
sharp and mangle-mouthed, beyond the help of braces.
Wiseman’s power lives and breathes here in the cause and effect. Whether addressing the odd gender distinctions of WWII naval vessels, the chore, albeit subtle pleasure, of killing cockroaches, or the discomfort of staying off the bottle with a partner who collects, of all things, bottles, she has a keen eye for exposing the hypocritical, the hard-hitting, and the heartfelt.
If flawed at all, the cohesion and consistency of the work could, at times, be perceived as a bit repetitious. However, the challenge of working within similar formal constraints as well as close knit thematic material could, and perhaps should, be perceived as a difficult task that is masterfully handled. All the same, some of the most impactful poems come from the most formally diverse section of the book.
Deeper still, spread throughout the collection is one question: what is the effect of that which is taken in? Be it literal poison or alcohol, be it the examples or the expectations given, or be it the history or ocean that surrounding all, much has been offered to drink. The acceptance or denial of that drink is what drowns or what rescues. Or, as the words from the poem “Substance” put it “the liquid diet, beauty/by what you won’t swallow/and what you will.”
Exhaustive and expansive in its approach, cohesive and commanding in its scope, intimate and inclusive in its appeal, full of wit, water, and what lies beneath, Drink is most certainly worth taking in.