Fear of Moving Water
- by Alex Grant
Alex Grant’s Fear of Moving Water is structured in four sections, and while there is no listing for this in the table of contents, each is preceded by a brief prose poem that serves as an introduction to the section. The collection moves deftly between the serious, the sublime, and the silly, sometimes melding all three into something shining and whole. Take, for example, this passage, which serves as an epigraph to the first section of poems, titled Bones & Confetti:
So we come here, to this haberdashery of words, apothecary for the faintly damaged. Well,
Wounded Elk, walk this way -- follow the voice leading you toward something, anything other
than that damned catechism of caterwauling you’ve suffered through the shrinking years of
bones and confetti -- The lights will go down and the yellow spotlight of the moon will pull
your body upward from the slow riptide of the world.
Bones and confetti are two words you do not ordinarily find in the same sentence, but it is an astute observation that directly references both the solemn and the celebratory components of our lives. In this poem, the bone as a structural object, as a remnant of the body, takes on a figurative significance that speaks to the transitory nature of our lives. The confetti also speaks to this state, in that the bright bits become more than simple scraps of paper, symbolic not just of life’s celebrations but also of the traces we leave behind after the party is over. But Grant is not without a sense of humor. There is of course the pun -- the “shrinking years” that immediately precedes the word “bones”; and the tone, which is slightly cheeky, a tad over-confident, welcoming us in where we will be dressed in words and given a tonic to lift us out of our own skin and into another’s.
Grant is a skillful story teller. His poems draw the reader in through the particulars of the image, then through those particulars we are given a glimpse of something larger in a sort of microscope/telescope effect. In many of these poems he directs our gaze toward an object, then draws us up and out of the poem to contemplate the implications of history on our understanding of that object. Here is his poem “The Gardens of Pompeii”:
The Gardens of Pompeii
In the gardens of Pompeii, where fields of asphodel
once dropped white petals and the grass grinds
beneath your feet, where glass trees clink in the wind
and winter never comes, the streets where children
ran with barking dogs are empty -- the clacking
cobblestones wrapped in centuries of ash --
like black olives petrified in withered vine-leaves.
Here Grant has excavated a world that no longer exists, resurrected the fields of asphodel, the barking dogs, and the children . . . . Through his imagery Grant is able to insert us into a history that is no longer visible on the surface. The lightness of the asphodel, the clinking of the glass, juxtaposed against that last solemn line, lend this poem gravitas.
Grant seems to know his history and revels in the retelling, but is not one to shy away from the absurd when it suits him, in much the same way one might use humor to deflect terror. In “Captain Scott’s Lost Diary” we are presented with a few passages from this “lost diary” in which we learn a lot about Captain Scott, as well as (the very obviously fictionalized) Captain Oates. For those not familiar with the story, Captain Scott led an expedition to the South Pole. Captain Oates allegedly died in an honorable suicide by stepping out into a blizzard when it became obvious that his ill health threatened to compromise the health of the others on the expedition. Grant, however, posits an alternative reason for Oates’ departure:
Six weeks in this tent, and we are all close
to breaking-point. Captain Oates masturbates
constantly - even during dinner – he claims
it’s simply a mechanism to keep his body temperature
up - though we all have our doubts. I no longer feel
comfortable shaking hands with him, and last night
he told me that he wants me to have his babies.
...............The wind is unrelenting, the cold
bites at every nerve, and Oates has threatened
that if we don’t go to dinner soon, he’ll go alone -
and that he may be gone for quite some time.
Grant’s use of personae in poems is admirable. He uses these masks to great effect, allowing the reader into a frame that would otherwise be un-enterable. To quote Grant, speaking on his use of personae:
. . . [T]he use of persona in a poem frees the poet to inhabit a world outside of the individual
personality – I imagine it’s a little like wearing a chinese mask – it allows the writer to take on
a foreign personality, to say something that might otherwise sound inauthentic or affected if it
were spoken directly. It also allows me to repeatedly make staggering, unauthenticated
claims of fact – a very appealing notion!
There is certainly something appealing in stepping out of one’s skin. It hints at a drama that can only be enacted by allowing oneself to step away from one’s self. But of course one can never truly do that; one is, at all times, writing from a point within.
Alex Grant is an accomplished poet, the recipient of numerous awards including the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, the Oscar Arnold Young Award, the Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets Prize, and far too many finalist and semi-finalist nods to name here, but most notably The Felix Pollak and Brittingham Prizes, Tupelo Press’ Dorset Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, Discovery/The Nation, and The Arts & Letters Poetry Prize. Despite that fact, it is surprising to realize that Fear of Moving Water is his first full-length collection.
Fear of Moving Water could almost serve as an Alex Grant retrospective, as a kind of “selected works”, because, of the thirty-nine poems included here, at least twenty-two of these appear in either of his two previous chapbook-length collections. But rather than stitch these prior collections together at the seams, Grant has ripped them apart, reconfigured them, and through bones and confetti, bodies and water, chains and mirrors, Grant has painstakingly curated a representative selection of his finest work to date, work that is both cocked and benedictive, perpetually at the ready, offering an invocation of divine blessing for all who pass through.