In late March 2022, I attended the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans for the first time. It’s an annual queer festival, and I was delighted to be there in person, surrounded by so many fellow LGBTQ writers, after two years of exclusively virtual gatherings. One of those writers was Lisa Dordal, whom I had never met and feel so fortunate now to know.
At her reading, Lisa shared poems from her second, newly released collection, Water Lessons. She opened with the first poem in the book, aptly titled “Welcome,” and she closed with the last poem, auspiciously titled “I Love.” That’s when I knew I had found the next book I wanted to read—and review—a book that welcomed me first, then challenged me with its probing range of personal, historical, and zeitgeist reckonings, and at last returned me to the best reason poems are ever made: love. In fact, love might be the best reason any art is made—not because the subject matter is easy or trite or some version of greeting-card love. Quite the opposite. Even anger and grief, depression and loneliness, connect us to our primal yearning for love.
That’s what Lisa Dordal’s poems do: attended by craft, enriched by both precision and understatement. She writes the hard things true—a mother’s alcoholism and death, a father’s dementia and decline, her speaker’s own struggles with faith, doubt, and suicidal ideation. She writes the true things hard—white privilege and the tacit racisms that inform even our earliest childhood lore (Pippi Longstocking!), the Trump era’s further marginalization of already marginalized people. And all these truths she writes with love.
Three poems in this collection of 29 declare love in their titles. The implicit triptych of “Love Poem,” “Love Poem for My Father,” and “I Love” gives the reader permission to engage love directly, as a subject always worthy of explicit consideration and at once a subject not to be relegated to the realm of hyperbole and romantic cliché. Listen to these four anaphoric (“I love”) turns that create the helix of elegant juxtapositions in “Love Poem”:
I love how the words
My Mother and I
are like a door, slightly open,
the darkness itself
This love isn’t only for the mother but for the language that allows the speaker to express love for the mother. This love, promising as a “slightly open” door, also reveals “darkness.” Love and light are not synonyms after all.
I love the hunger
of a baby bird
showing its red infinity
to the world.
Now we leap to the animal kingdom by analogy, the “baby bird” as much an offspring as any human child, as much an inheritor of “hunger,” which broadens to the “red infinity” we recognize as desire in the form of a gaping mouth. Then:
three kinds of consciousness—
flesh, ghost, divine.
We humans love our schemas, don’t we? We love trying to make sense of the world, and ourselves, by imposing order: classifications, comparisons, lists. Here is the surprise of Dordal’s parsing of consciousness, that vast interior landscape. She’s signaling to us that the body (“flesh”), the past (“ghost”), and the spirit (“divine”) are where her conscious investments, as person and poet, lie. Suddenly, we can see the yoking of these three as the centerpiece of her book’s deepest meditations. It’s a meta-disclosure and a primer for reading everything that follows. Last:
I love the blue vein
beneath the skin
of my right wrist—
how it forgave me
This is the second reference by our speaker to a suicide attempt, which is perhaps not what we first (or ever) expect to find in a love poem. The “blue” of the vein in vivid contrast to the “red” of the baby bird’s mouth. The specificity of the “right” wrist, which could mean both the wrist that is not left and the wrist that was chosen for the act. The placement of the em dash, which holds us longer in this moment, lingering and zoomed in. And then, the way love resolves into forgiveness, a coalescing again of flesh (the vein), ghost (the moment when forgiveness was most needed), and divine (the moment when forgiveness was granted in the form of continued life).
I love that this poem has four turns, mirroring the four chambers of the heart. I love what the poem says and shows but also what the poem leaves unsaid, unshown—the powerful evocations of absence. And I love how the poem insists on love itself not being monolithic, not always looking or sounding or seeming like the love we find in Hallmark movies and framed wall-hangings. I think I could shelter inside a Lisa Dordal poem and be nourished forever. Every door opens into a worthy room.
In “Love Poem for My Father,” it’s striking to note that Dordal names the poem’s intended recipient but does not use the word “love” in the body of the poem at all. Even this omission feels artful, intentional, conveying that love between speaker and father is not easily expressed in words. There is distance between them: “Lately,/ I imagine myself far from it—making the earth//so small I can hold it in my hands.” There is also painful history the speaker cannot forget, even as her father will and has (another kind of pain): “My father’s anger, waning/ with his growing dementia. His face like a child’s.”
Reading this poem so soon after the “Love Poem” with unassigned recipients, I can’t help but hear the resonances, see the “red infinity” of the baby bird’s throat reflected in the implicit red of the father’s anger, the “Occasional rage directed at the staff burdened with his care.” We learn to associate the various forms of fury with the color red, I suppose from the idiom “seeing red,” and now we can’t help but see it here. The father, whose face is now “like a child’s,” is also the baby bird from the previous poem. The speaker and her father share that hunger and vulnerability in common.
And then there is gesture, which reflects the idiom “actions speak louder than words.” We glimpse the love of the speaker for her father in these lines: “I hold his hand for a long time, taking a photo of just our hands.” As readers, we’re lingering and zoomed in again, not on the solitary “right wrist” this time but on the two joined hands. Love of self that is not easy, love of family that is not easy. I love how Lisa Dordal’s poems teach me more about how to read poetry at large in the world and more about how to read her poems in light of each other.
The poem “I Love” echoes “Love Poem” in its anaphoric structure and its lack of a singular, specific attribution. This time instead of four anaphoric invocations there are 14—fitting for the culmination of a project. Here the parachute of love expands again, to include romantic love in the form of family we choose: “I love how my wife says operators are standing by,/ whenever I’m out of town and she wants to chat” and later, “I love that an owl visited my wife in a dream and that my wife said hello and asked:/ Are you the kind of owl that people refer to as a barred owl?” Yes, birds are here again, so many of them, echoing the baby bird from the earlier “Love Poem” and extending Dordal’s rich image system with further avian life. But there’s also something else that speaks to love implicitly and profoundly: In both invocations of her wife, the speaker endows the beloved with words. Instead of a silent figure, an “object of affection” (another idiom we know well!), readers hear the wife speak in her own voice, her waking voice and her dreaming voice no less. I thought to myself, “Ah, how lovely and how true to love—honoring the voice of another.”
In this poem, there are cameos by fruit flies and octopi. In this poem, both Jesus and Mother Theresa appear. In this poem, the mother from “My Mother and I” returns, wanting to show the speaker her garden. The word “cranium” is also oded (shouldn’t ode be a verb? I think Lisa Dordal makes a compelling case that it should!), which hearkens back to the way language is not only a vehicle to convey love but a vehicle worthy of love in itself, despite its many limitations. First, our speaker was loving the phrase “My mother and I,” and now she says: “I love how the word cranium sounds like the name of a flower.” I had never realized that it does, but now I cannot hold the hard skull separate from the softness of a flower.
The poem “I Love” also contains my “heart line” of the whole collection, which does not necessarily mean the line I love most (in fact, Dordal’s poems actively resist hierarchies in love and tacitly instruct me to do the same). Rather, it’s the line I look for in a book of poems that serves as the axis on which the rest of the project turns. Dordal writes: “I love that what saves one person is not the same as what saves someone else.” How hard: To acknowledge that the answers we have found in our own lives are shareable but ultimately non-transferable. How true: To acknowledge that our salvation, whether spiritual, secular, or some combination thereof, cannot be hand-delivered by anyone else, even by a poet whose work we love. How loving: Our guide through these pages, who presents us with love in its varied, beautiful, and difficult forms, prescribes nothing while offering everything. There is abundance here as well as restraint.
I love so much about Water Lessons, more than I can name.
I love Lisa Dordal’s unabashed love of the couplet, and I love Lisa Dordal’s practice of breaking a couplet in the last stanza of many of her poems.
I love that Lisa Dordal has a poem called “Ars Poetica” comprised of single-line stanzas, including, “And I want to believe there is a door.” I love especially that there’s a “door” hidden in Lisa Dordal’s name and how often doors appear in her work. (Here’s another: “Draw three doors/ on a sheet of paper. Look back/ before you enter.”)
I love that Lisa Dordal has a poem called “Interview” where the speaker interviews herself, and I love this poem as prompt and invitation to myself and to my students. What questions have we been longing to pose to ourselves? What questions have we been too timid or afraid to answer?
Another poem, called “Postcards from the 70s,” where the speaker captures time in fierce and fragile glimpses, also serves as prompt and invitation. What missives will we choose to send forward in time from our own pasts?
All of which is to say:
If I didn’t already write poems, Lisa Dordal’s Water Lessons would make me want to write them. Since I do write poems, Lisa Dordal’s Water Lessons makes me want to write more poems, more capacious poems, as spare and lush, as delicate and robust, as the poems she has written here.