The Water Between Us

Magdelyn Hammond

The Water Between Us
by Shara McCallum
University of Pittsburgh Press
1999
$12.95

Shara McCallum’s first collection, The Water Between Us, may be a typical first book of poetry that moves through the torments and glories of growing up, but it is not a typical collection. McCallum’s poems are startling in their breadth of experience and language. From the beginning McCallum asks us to free our expectations with her apt epigraph: “Only the magic and the dream are true. All the rest’s a lie.” If you don’t believe that when you begin reading her poems, you will when you finish. McCallum drives us through not only a troubled, sometimes shocking, childhood world, but also through a world simultaneously bereft of and steeped in myth, legend, and folklore. The poet’s voice is consistently patient with discovery, impatient with deception. In her opening poem, “In the Garden of Banana and Coconut Trees,” McCallum envisions an appropriately Edenic world inhabited by her parents without children. The poet-child’s voice is created in this world and moves through the rest of the poems with the freedom to take on other voices, to spin out new stories from the old, to become likewater, sustaining and dividing.

The poems in the first section are somewhat more traditional than the rest of the book, drawing on childhood fears and misconceptions and on the occasionally savored memory. But the final poem in this section, “jack mandoora me no choose none” is the real catalyst for the powerful imaginative explorations that come later in the book. McCallum interweaves the child-poet’s voice with that of a grandmother or story-teller and with an older, collective voice of folklore. This pattern of moving in and out of voices is matched by the loose stanzas and scattering of words across the page, as if the letters are blown into place by the breath of each voice. As McCallum writes:

this is where it begins
always
and where it begins
again.

Section two is itself a kind of beginning. The first poem, “What Lies Beneath,” sets a more somber tone for the section and the rest of the book. The voice of the poet-child is now tinged by sadness and a looming darkness, as in the lines “and the shore retreats from her reach; / the water fills with shadows.” The shadows in the water enlarge and take on their own shapes and voices as McCallum begins moving more into persona — first two strikingly different, though anonymous, women; then recognizable, mythical female voices: Persephone, the sirens, Circe, mermaids. In the last two sections of the book, these female voices are mingled with that of the poet’s, imagining and reimagining a childhood as no one has ever spoken it. McCallum’s personal and collective memories are both unsettling and fearless. Her poems recreate myth from the female perspective, maintaining a wry humor within an unmistakable critique of masculine renderings of the female story. McCallum’s poems wrestle with her own history as well as with our accepted history, and while her answers are not always pleasant, they are never without truth stolen from lies, beauty wrenched from pain.

Magdelyn Hammond received her MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland at College Park where she is currently working on her PhD in American Literature. She teaches rhetoric and poetry at UMCP.

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