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Issue 18

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Jenna Le Reviews Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water

water Trouble the Water, by Derrick Austin. (BOA Editions, Ltd, 2016)

Derrick Austin’s poetry is intensely concentrated stuff, lyrical, melancholy, erotically charged to the point of being almost perpetually clinched in rapture, and infused with a sensuous grandeur reminiscent of the biblical Song of Songs. Though young (Trouble the Water is his book-length debut), this poet is already making his mark: his poem “Cedars of Lebanon” appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, impressing and exciting many readers with its easy mastery of language and its virtually perfect beauty—

Will you find me without the pink and blue hydrangeas?

Will you find me without the spikes of St. Augustine grass?

Will you find me with the bloodied snow—where some frail thing was raptured?

Trouble the Water is dense with headily atmospheric poems that, like mangroves, have long muscular roots in the soil of the Florida Gulf Coast region, where the poet was raised and educated:

…Waves spread
like playing cards—a flush the land can’t beat—

and the sea keeps upping the ante: first,
quartz and chrysolite, then breakwaters
and wooden weirs, then the land itself,

an erosion so ceaseless I too want to give
my body, wholly, to something else.
Camped by a fire, you call to me…. (from “Pass-A-Grille”)

These poems are neither dull nor merely descriptive, the way so-called “poetry of place” is at its worst; instead, they are suffused with a dynamism, a sense of urgency, which keeps you turning the pages with fascination until the end. Partly, this sense of urgency stems from the poet’s frequent use of a literary device whereby he chooses an unnamed lover to be his addressee, such that there is a taut trembling cord of erotic energy running between the speaker and addressee throughout the length of the poems. This erotic energy also gives life to this poet’s many forays into the genre of ekphrastic poetry, a genre that, in the hands of some other poets, has come to be so clogged with deadwood that a reader would be forgiven for being tempted to shy from it altogether.

There is another kind of energy coursing through these poems besides the erotic, though, and that is the energy of aggrieved and grieved social witness. In powerfully fiery poems like “Magnolia” and “Sweet Boys” as well as more calm and clipped but no less morally centered poems like “Effigy Without a Body,” the poet examines the wounds that racism and homophobia have inflicted on human society since time immemorial: “I can’t stand to/look ahead/at another dead/black boy,” he laments. There are also pieces where poetry of place tips into the political, as in a section of ecologically aware poems about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Derrick Austin studied writing at the University of Tampa, where the poet Erica Dawson teaches, and Dawson’s influence can be seen in Austin’s use of rhyme in poems like “Blaxploitation” and “Heaven and Earth,” which audaciously return to a single rhyme-sound over and over like a tolling bell; poems like “Crown Glass” and “Conveyance,” which are split, as if by tweezers, into birdbone-delicate slant-rhymed couplets; and the villanelle “‘Summertime,’” which poignantly uses rhyme and repetition to communicate the speaker’s sorrow at losing a grandfather, rung by rung, to dementia:

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….

In all the poems in Trouble the Water, both rhymed and unrhymed, there is a discipline, an unfailing attention to detail at the word level, which I expect will continue to serve this poet well as he proceeds from great to ever greater success in his art.