The first time I read The Lake by Daniel Villasenor I was fifteen, crunched into the backseat of our tiny family Chrysler and on my way to Georgia.
I’d plucked the book off a library shelf because it had the most beautiful cover I’d ever seen: a long black road with desolate shoulders, black and white clouds hunched darkly over the pavement, buttes fading into the distance. Inside the cover were a thousand hand-scribbled phrases, and the pages had a rich texture to them, some sticking out farther than others, in the style of a hand-bound journal. At the time, I was particularly obsessed with the phrase “clutched to my breast”—and here was a book that fit. I clutched it to my breast all through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, then into the autumnal Appalachian foothills.
I have to admit that at first the book made my brain hurt. Villasenor’s first and only (312 pages of tight prose poetry born out of his Stegner Fellowship at Stanford), I hadn’t even finished the first page when I realized this was unlike anything I’d ever read. Villasenor’s sentences are long and often jumpy, desperately full of rich detail and big words. I quickly began jotting a list of unknowns. By page nine, when I hit a sentence numbering 141 words, I learned I might have to re-read a bit to comprehend, too.
The Lake tells the story of Zach, a philosopher who is “sick” because he’s forgotten the real stuff of life: oak leaves, fresh bread, rusted bolts, steak, the feel of wind. First through a series of conversations then by accidentally staying at The Lake—a clearing deep in the woods of Louisiana, where a woman named Anna caretakes eleven disabled children—Zach slowly makes his way back to the world. Along the way, he falls in love, and Daniel Villasenor deftly shows the passion and complication of two damaged people taking tentative steps toward one another. It’s a book as beautiful inside as out, so richly sensual and heartbreaking that you put the book down and wander out into the rain. (Or flip back to the dream sex scene. It’s fantastic.)
I took time to let each sentence melt upon my tongue, I found myself so deeply moved—so terribly alive—that I could hardly stand the sensation. At a core level, I believed that the difficulty was the point. Like a young scholar struggling through the terza rima of Dante or the thick sonnets of Blake, I committed myself. I filled the margins of journals with The Lake, memorized its passages by my sheer repetition. And years later, it was Villasenor’s line I whispered under my breath as I walked through a dripping forest, late at night, toward a man I was terrified to be with: Risk is a root planted in the ground which the world blesses with rain.