Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

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Trouble the Water is an auspicious debut, a deep and resonant volume which nurses wonder in the face of sorrow and anger, wonder in the presence of loss.  Here we follow a speaker who proclaims early on, “my heart swims/ in gladness at the changeable world.” I want to keep these words as a credo, recite them often.  I want to receive the world this way every day.

What is the poet’s job? my students and I ask each other and ourselves.  The simple answer is to write poems.  The harder answer is to help us see the world, in all its fraught beauty and failed grace—to see it so fully that we too are impelled to bear witness; that we, like the poet-speakers before us, are unable to turn away. 

Yes, I have seen the moon, many moons now, but have I noticed how “the moon tows itself/across the bay” the way Austin has—the vital effort this action requires?  The moon, after all, is not an object, and neither is it a specter of my own conjuring. 

Yes, I have spent a day at the beach, many days now, but have I recognized the ocean for the gambler it is?  “Waves spread/ like playing cards—a flush the land can’t beat—//and the sea keeps upping the ante.”  Too long I have thought only of people who “brave the waves,” and not of the sea’s own risky business, the ventures it undertakes with every undertow.

Even that lighthouse in the distance, familiar to me now as background noise: Austin brings it front and center, makes me look anew: “The lighthouse/ winks its one good eye.”

I read these poems as lyric missives from a pilgrimage, the speaker’s journey set in motion by St. John’s question as cited in the epigraph—“Wilt thou be made whole?”  The collection is arranged into four sections, which might echo the four points of the compass, the four seasons of the year, even the four elements of the climate, and perhaps most of all, the four chambers of our speaker’s glad-swimming heart.  He travels within as without.  He travels through family lore and romantic love, through art and literature, museums and hotel rooms, to the Sanssouci Palace and the grave of Zora Neale Hurston, from God, away from God, and back to God again.  His poems reflect the earned humility of one who is both brave and wise.

With Austin’s speaker, I have “nursed a longneck/ by the cooler, catfish on ice jeweled/ with flies.”  Was any description ever more stunningly clear, more visual and visceral at once? With Austin’s speaker, I have watched “our works turn spindrift in the sea,” and now I am left with the word spindrift like a lozenge on my tongue, a word I don’t want to melt away. With Austin’s speaker, I have regarded “the sky,/flinging its gorgeous indifference” upon all of us.  In other words, I have tasted the enormity of human experience in these small morsels, and Austin has made even what is most futile in our lives delectable for a moment.

This book contains a series of formal triumphs, including the super-sestina “Blaxploitation,” in which every one of the poem’s 39 lines ends with a different connotation or deployment of black.  It begins:

Another night of “I’m not usually into black

guys but…” and I’m alone with Johnnie Walker Black

and too many movies.  I’m not offended.  No black

moods at all.  I’ll watch The Seventh Seal.  Black

chess pieces slaying white, live or die, Bergman’s black-

est phase.  See I’m not mad.  But if I were Black

Death right now, I’d slaughter Love.  Fade to black.

Derrick AustinThis is quite simply one of the most charged commentaries on race, sex, and film I have ever read, and the form never lets us forget what we’re talking about.  The sestina is already an insistent form, but now that insistence turns urgent, unforgettable.  The commentary here is empowered exponentially by the recurrence of black in every line rather than once per stanza.  This poem reminds us that while poetry may help us discern the overlooked beauty in our world, it may also—and indeed it must—make us look hardest at that which we fear most to see: stereotypes, racism, homophobia.

You will not find a more prosodic or seamless villanelle than Austin’s “Summertime,” which holds a whole brimming world—zeitgeist and landscape and culture—in its spare nineteen lines:

A pipe burst somewhere.  The record kept turning

Porgy and Bess.  Granddad sang the old blues tune.

I told him my name.  The water was burning

when we went to the coast, green and churning

like collards in the kitchen.  It was June.

A pipe burst somewhere.  The record kept turning.

Neither will you find a more striking or surprising riff on William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” than in “Apology,” which begins:

Because I was not hungry

I ate your apricot: because I’m a beast,

not craving flesh just the dark, gnarled pit

Recall the artful erotics of e. e. cummings’ “She being Brand…(XIX),” and then read “Bow Down” where the speaker sings in a deeper register:

Kings wait to see who will kneel.

I’ve forgotten my line.  Is this when I

abdicate the throne or bruise you

with my scepter?

I beg

your pardon.  I would resign the crown

a thousand times to kneel at your feet.

In my favorite poem, “Catacombs of San Callisto,” I see the two men together, the speaker and his lover, and I wish for the triumph of their love in a world that so often refuses to see it, or name it, let alone bless it.  Austin crafts his own blessing here: 

I’ve walked alone with a man in the dark

and made much of his body—

you’re with me now, touring the nests of the dead.

We’re told by books old as these walls:

Filthy, our bodies, yours and mine.  Not so.

This refutation—the small, suddenly luminous phrase “Not so”—restores wonder to a story that history has shamed.  Austin continues:

When we love, we take each other in

like living water until warm

plaits of air unbraid in our throats. […]

I would be the good shepherd

above your body in its cold, stone niche

not only because I believe

in the resurrection of the body, but because

I want to be the face that welcomes you

to that inordinate dark.

Trouble the Water is a book of ekphrasis and confession, of psalms and vespers and even one “Primer for Sainthood,” which promises “there is another sweetness saved for those/ who wash and bind the wounds, who join the feast.”  This isn’t a book that lets the heart rest easy, but a book that makes the heart groan in order that it may also exult.  In “Magnolia,” our speaker mourns, “I can’t stand to/look ahead/ at another dead black boy.”  At “the Grave of Zora Neale Hurston,” he confides, and then he resolves:

So many things

are conspiring to kill me, Zora.

Not only sickness and guns

but the tongues of those who

would sooner kiss me or call me

lover.  Zora, it’s not my dying day.”

The final words of this collection give nothing away.  They might as well be the first words, for you’re going to turn back to the first page and read that “Tidewater Psalm” again anyway.

At the end, Austin’s speaker does not instruct us to “Make a fist,” to strike back at the world for its wrongs.  Neither does he instruct us to fold our hands in a more traditional posture of prayer.  His eyes are open, his mind is open, his heart is open, so why not his hands?  Why not ours? 

Instead, “Open your palms,” the speaker commands.  Prepare to receive everything, and so you shall.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →