My Affairs Are Just My Questions

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In the poem “Phil—,” the speaker warns of the dangers of “focus[ing] on one thing / and mak[ing] it stand for every thing,” which is a good piece of advice for any reader of One Sleeps The Other Doesn’t, Jacqueline Waters long-awaited second book of poetry. The book, which is just over one hundred pages long, consists of fourteen poems—not including the poems-within-poem that appear in “Hello Due to Confusion: A Guard: II.” And while many of the poems are long, discursive, and paratactic, the book resists being easily summed up or captured in a brief blurb.

The poems often read as an extended conversation with one’s self, or perhaps with an other. In “Garden of Eden a College,” which was originally published as a chapbook from A Rest Press, the speaker claims, “my affairs / are just my questions,” and later in the poem a voice, perhaps the speaker’s inner-editor, parenthetically says, “These are all very good questions but stop / asking them.” And so there is a visible struggle in these poems—the reader gets to see the speaker thinking through ideas, expressing her doubts, and all the mess and contradictions that includes.

This is especially the case in “Garden of Eden a College,” where two characters, Jacqueline and Lampwick, appear and seem to be in a constant back-and-forth, tug-of-war, question-and-answer. Lampwick exists in opposition to Jacqueline and interrogates her. However, a strange slippage occurs in the back-and-forth and it can become unclear who is speaking. For example, “Lampwick this is not what you are looking for / or it is and you are totally embarrassed,” most likely should be read as Jacqueline addressing Lampwick; however, after so many of these exchanges and the strange way the characters constantly address each other by name, it is easy to begin reading it as one might a play, “Lampwick[:] [T]his is not…” Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter who is responsible for saying what, as the struggle between the two characters could easily be a struggle within a single, splintered self. This sort of shift in voice, or talking to or questioning one’s self, works well at the close of another long poem, “The Saw That Talked”:

How I can frame it aw I don’t know
Not that I feel that way
but that it appeals to me
to what
to feel that way

The “to what” in the penultimate line—the stutter, or hesitation, or interrupting voice—adds an interesting layer to the poem. Instead of the poem as monologue, we have the poem as dialogue.

Like “Garden of Eden a College” and “The Saw That Talked,” the poems throughout the collection easily lend themselves to multiple readings. The overall lack of punctuation can draw into question where one statement ends and a new one begins, and that is one of the pleasures of these poems. Another pleasure comes in the strangeness and playfulness in language, beginning with the weirdly wonderful enjambment of the book’s title. One poem is titled “Guard of an Eaten Collage: A Guard: I,” and the next poem is “The Garden of Eden a College.” “Garden of Eden” is preceded and followed by “guards,” which is explained in a fourth poem, “Somnambulism.” Written in two columns, “Somnambulism” reads like two separate pieces: one half reads like a performance piece that would fit alongside the imaginative blueprints for plays that appear in Jonathan Ball’s 2010 Coach House release, Clockfire; the other half reads as a straight-forward explanation for the poems that precede it:

I thought if my produc-
tions would not or could
not protect me, I could, at
the very least, protect my
productions. To protect
one production I imagined
especially vulnerable I pro-
duced other productions to
act as guards.

There are a number of lines that can be culled throughout the collection that speak to the act of writing itself, but if one were to draw too much attention to these statements, one would be in danger of focusing on one part and trying to make it represent the whole.

Throughout the book, the tone often comes across as flat or indifferent. In the opening poem, “A Ploy,” the speaker claims:

no emotion is pleasing!
each must be rejected
replaced by an opposite
in turn rejected and replaced by yet another
strain of undifferentiated sentiment

There is also a sense of exhaustion: “Jackie I see / Lampwick I tire.” This exhaustion, or perhaps emotional remove, lends itself to wonderful descriptions that get at the strangeness of so many things people have accepted as normal in their lives. For example, “The Tax,” looks at relationships and the odd exchange of saying “I love you,” which “Begets an I LOVE YOU back, or it falters / As it its harbor / Fails to find.” And later, the poem looks at the structure of relationships:

…they are structures
These arrangements: living together
Sleeping alongside, staying awake while the other one sleeps. You have
To care! Be the sun
shining through a watery cloud, or the cloud
Creased to a white veil
Since where you believe you have power you don’t
And where you do you refuse to wield it

In the opening poem, “A Ploy,” “you” are instructed to reject your emotions until “you find your ways / have rearranged you slightly.” Although this rearrangement is not as extreme as Rimbaud’s idea of a complete derangement of the senses, Jacqueline Waters is definitely onto something here. This slight rearrangement results in unique descriptions and a worldview that gleans from a wide range of sources—from Jack Lemmon, to Apollinaire, to Linda Napolitano’s UFO abduction—however, the biggest source seems to be Waters own inner-self. This is an intelligent and well-crafted poetry that demands multiple readings. And it is a voice—perhaps a bit apprehensive and damaged by experience—that seems willing to express it all, even the ugly and cruel.


Read “Scissor Half,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Jacqueline Waters.

Gina Myers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and Hold It Down (Coconut Books, 2013), as well as numerous chapbooks. Originally from Saginaw, Michigan, she now lives in Philadelphia where she works in higher ed communications. More from this author →