Why We Chose Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s Water I Won’t Touch for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


In their citation selecting Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s first book, What Runs Over, for the 2019 Whiting Award in Poetry, the selection committee calls the book a “verse memoir,” which is interesting to me in the sense that I think I approach most poetry collections that aren’t clearly about another subject as memoir of sorts, by which I mean that I feel like most writers, in the end, are writing about themselves in some way.  Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s newest collection, Water I Won’t Touch, is perhaps more direct about doing so than other collections, as their poems take us through personal experiences with their estranged and abusive father, with drug use, with transitioning, and most beautifully, with their relationship to their beloved.

It’s that latter part I want to focus on here, because the love poems in Water I Won’t Touch are among the more vibrant and moving I’ve ever read. But before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Water I Won’t Touch, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Kayleb Rae Candrilli, you’ll need to subscribe by March 15!

I want to begin with the poem titled “My Partner Wants Me to Write Them a Poem about Sheryl Crow,” which begins with the desire to get married on a beach “that refuses to take itself too seriously,” but then takes the reader to their childhood home, “all bullets and needles and trashbags held / at arm’s length. It is my estranged father’s damp / bed of cardboard and cigar boxes filled / with gauze and tarnished spoons.” So much potential for harm and violence wrapped in those lines, but look how Candrilli turns this poem:

Now, my partner and I light a fire that will
burn all traces of the family that lived here.
Black plastic smoke curdles up, and loose bullets
discharge in the flames. My partner holds
my hand as gunfire rings through
the birch trees. Though this is almost
beautiful, it is not. And while I’m being honest:
My partner and I spend most of our time
on Earth feeding one another citrus fruits
and enough strength to go on.

I’m really drawn to the way Candrilli follows up the very real danger of loose bullets going off in a fire with this sort of nod toward the poetic, the acknowledgement that it’s almost beautiful, but not. And yet, what follows is beautiful—Candrilli and their partner sustaining each other in the face of so much—I don’t know how else to put it—crap.

The very next poem is titled “Here We Are, Aging Together, Just Like We Said We Would,” and it opens with a birthday party in an apartment filled “with inflatable dinosaurs, scaly ice / cream cake, and raw meat,” which sounds like a hell of a time, honestly. The almost-end of the poem, though, is where the reader really gets the depth of this relationship. “When my blood was outside / my body you kept / the carnivores at bay. / This is what we’ve promised // one another, to try and live / and live and live / until the earth caves in.” What more can people who love each other give than that?

There’s so much more the poems within Water I Won’t Touch, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press on April 20 but available to our Poetry Book Club members in just a few weeks. If you subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by March 15, you’ll receive your early copy of the collection, and will be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Kayleb Rae Candrilli in early May. I hope you’ll join us!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →