Reviewer: Steve Harris
Bio

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A Review: House of Poured-Out Waters
by Jane Mead (University of Illinois Press 2002)

The title of Jane Mead’s latest collection, House of Poured-Out Waters, is a suggestive one. The New Testament translation for "House of Poured Out Waters" is "Bethesda," the healing pool in John 5. In the gospel story, Christ heals a man who has suffered for 38 years (an approximate age for Mead during the composition of "House."). The pool itself, located near the Sheep’s Gate in Jerusalem, is a gathering place for those suffering and seeking a miracle. In the evenings, the old story goes, an angel may touch the waters of the pool. If you can get to the water quick enough, you may be healed. In contrast, Jesus heals through his word, which is certainly attractive to a poet. There are other layers. Jesus himself will be "poured out" (Isaiah 53), and the pool is a place where sheep are washed before sacrifice.

The collection’s opening poem - "To Break the Spell is to Invite Chaos into the World"- covers all the collection’s thematic ground along with the speaker’s personal history. This isn’t immediately obvious, since Mead’s approach is largely cumulative and nonlinear. Her story becomes clear, however, by collection’s end, as echoes and images reoccur in poem after poem. Mead’s compression is effective, stark. As the speaker walks the cliff’s edge near the ocean (a large healing pool), thoughts of both suicide and life pull at her:

It would be easier
if I did not exist -

but I did. It would be
easier if there were

nothing left, but there is -
mementos weeded down to

how to miss the out-juttings
below the cliff
, ocean

behind all the doors and windows.
Ocean, - and the watery sky

The watery grave (or way) yearned for by the speaker is shot through with despair. One senses, beneath the clipped lines, Mead’s knowledge of the darker psalms (42, 77) and the Book of Job. However, Mead never allows herself to sink totally. She’s alive and intends to stay that way. It is in this place of wind and sea and death that she also sees life: a swallow who makes her nest on the harsh cliff-face. Using italics for emphasis and balance, Mead marvels with a statement that is both question and answer:

Out of mud and feathers
she makes a home.

The speaker closes the circle with a question, also answered through a wide-eyed acceptance, even a hopeful endurance, that looks beyond the moment:

Earth or music?

The music as the earth: just so:
The horizon beyond the horizon -.

The shadows of a father’s abuse and violence dominate the collection. So too does the speaker’s response to what is, at first, an incomplete remembering. The speaker often sees a kind of cowardice in herself, calling herself at times "unforgivable," and "erratic." In "Lack, The Memory," events become clearer with the strong suggestion of murder or some sort of drunken accident with a gun. The house of the collection’s fist poem, with its doors and windows, its "ocean" of grief, begins to reveal its dark story as an internal dialogue with the self:

Remember the door?
          I remember the door.

Remember the door and the wall.
          I remember the wall.

The wall and the Smith and Wesson?
          The hand blackened by gunpowder.

I remember the weeping.
          And I remember the door.

But most of all, there were iris.
          Inside and outside.

The speaker’s sidelong (and heartbreaking) glance toward the iris is, of course, a defense against a painful memory. Something is revealed; however, much remains hidden, although not for long. The issue of cowardice and remembrance needs resolution. Eventually, in the long poem "Several Scenes in Search of the Same Explosion," the speaker points the finger at herself:

The story of my cowardice
goes like this: what I
tell him: tell him how
I remember that year
as the year he taught me
chess, snow coming down,
fire in the fireplace,
the year of the Christmas

he gave me the woolen jacket
with the little house
embroidered on the back,
pinks and greens so lovely

I never wore it - when there was
also the dimple in the
dining room floor, place

where the bullet didn’t

enter flesh

This denial is ironic, not defensive. Two bullets were fired:

    my sister on the porch
lumped on the ice where
he threw her in the
days before his wheelchair.

The old denial is now recast but now as gothic tableau. The sister’s absence is palpable, damning:

Mom at the stove, stirring
and frying, me in the rocker,
singing, while we wait for the

final explosion

Fate and choice are critical to Mead. They hang like a cloud over her little victories. In "Talking to You," she poses questions but, like Job, she addresses a whirlwind:

I do not think we choose -

night, and I’m a chromosome,
spinning. Days it deepens -

hair plastered to my forehead.
In the end, all I wanted to say
was this: marrow deep,
Sweet Jesus how I’m singing.

You should peel your skin off

and hear me.

The "You" in this sequence is the speaker. Her day-to-day existence is dominated by the past and the need to reconcile, come to terms, simply let go. Her inner conflict has left her with no easy resting place. The daylight is a "shattering" she holds onto, while the night possesses its own uneasy visions. Mead’s address shifts, without signal, toward God, her father, herself. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the speaker is now speaking, remembering, witnessing an act too long buried. Her voice is fierce, necessary, aching:

How about you tell me a story?

Make it to do with the fate of the earth,
start with the world’s beginning.
Maybe you could mention
my name - or just say Julie.

Then say it’s the same
for how I love her.

- The god that is in me
is the god that is in her.

Where do you go home to?

At some point, however, all this pain needs an outlet, a place to go for both reader and poet. In the long poem "House of Poured-Out Waters," Mead attempts to do this, tying together her inner pain, with outward observation and witness. The results are mixed, with various headline tragedies ("First there’s the /one about the baby / in Boston whose mother / thought to fry him") contrasted with the poet in her safe study, pen in hand, listening to Mozart ("Exhultate, Jubilate"). The counterpoint here is obvious in a gloomy Thomas Hardy sort of way. In a sense, it serves as a self-flagellation with whatever is available. However, it’s a long poem and, to some extent, the speaker has earned her complaint against the cold stars. Where the poem resonates, where it digs deep into the reader’s heart is when she revisits the death - portrayed as a crucifixion - of her sister and its ongoing impact on her life:

     I look down
and she’s there again,
after all these years,

there because braced
in a doorframe between
a kitchen and a hall, between
children and father, paint

under her fingernails, and I
recognize her. Same globe
of too-bright light
fading the scene out, air

filling with the sounds
of human children,
weeping, then the sounds
of human anger - that

other kind of grieving -
room filling and
emptying like a great
and weary lung, heaving -

and she, in the doorway
holding out for the space
between them, braced
as if strung up.

I look down and
see her. I look down
and see how the rest
of her life is the rest

of my life.

In the collection’s final section Mead does provide some closure, but it is not through an obvious underscoring of the world’s suffering as found in the previous "House of Poured-Out Water." In the poem "The Prairie as Valid Provider," the anger of the speaker’s voice has subsided (though the questions remain). A peace of sorts has descended:

Occasionally, I start from scratch.
Scratch for me is the prairie
and moonlight is my favorite season -

Mead still has her tragedies to zig-zag to, like the "human sandwich" created by the collapse of a San Francisco highway. However, there is a strange calmness too, like looking at a Geogia O’Keefe desert scene, with both its cattle skulls and emerging flowers. Sometimes the little victories, understandings, acceptances, are as large as life itself. They have to be, since that’s often all we have.

 

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