Ellen Doré Watson
Alice James Books ($15.95)
by Teresa Castellitto
Ellen Doré Watson’s latest poetry collection, pray me stay eager, is a meditation on the myriad ways the passage of time can be humorous, engaging, and devastating. Watson’s implementation of poetic form is as diverse as the range of experiences she explores; she moves quickly through lyrical rhyme schemes, blunt language, and enjambments that move the eyes and mind across and down the page in rapid bursts. Watson’s poetic exploration of the aging body, the ailing parent, the threat of assault weapons, and the fear of financial insecurity is both prayer and plea to retain the eagerness of youth, to avoid collapsing under the weight of so much knowledge. Divided into three sections, pray me stay eager assumes a stance that is open to the future, yet that remains firmly grounded in moments of awe fleeting through the present.
The collection begins with “Message in a Bottle,” a poem of six unrhymed tercets. It is one of the few poems here written in the third person, depicting an unnamed “her” whose “desk sits plopped lonely but points / true north,” although it ends with the first person “I” looking in a mirror at “her.” The poem illuminates all that a mirror does not reflect: a mother with a daughter whose birthday is not “regrettable” like her own. Concepts of “feast” and “fester” are equivocated as they relate to the love of forward movement for her daughter and dismay at her own aging. Watson juxtaposes words like “frets” and “bolds,” “lust” and “shame,” to underscore the range of topography trekked in the life of a woman of a certain age. The title, “Message in a Bottle,” may be a call to look beyond the vessel bobbing and floating at the surface and to discern the message inside.
“The Night Doesn’t Summarize the Day” further explores the theme of dueling dichotomies in fourteen lines of free verse laden with enjambments. This poem moves away from the obviously personal to explore ways in which we come together only to separate in fear. Invoking the recognition of Palestine creates a stark image of well-guarded borders whose impenetrability requires constant vigilance to the extent that even to question the soundness of those boundaries may wreak havoc. Watson’s language is provocative—“skin lanterns,” “waterboarding”—and instills instant discomfort. The juxtaposition, “Small doses / of darkness are permissible, light pretends to own / nothing, or everything” is consistent with the narrator of “Message in a Bottle,” who “Hates partitions and in- / decision.” What is more partitioned or indecisive as the fate of marooned Palestinians whose light is filtered through encroaching settlements surrounding specks of “something green”? The poem calls to mind a deft defense of a nation whose voice has been all but silenced by walls of political apologist chatter.
In “LAX to BDL,” Watson illustrates a brief fantasy of seducing a stranger on a plane. Beneath the craving for sexual fulfillment are fear and a bit of resignation, as she posits “¬real lust lately / gone underground from lack of habit and hope.” The divide between the narrator and the object of her interest is bridged as she catches his look: “sluggish, kind of watery, just like me.” It may not be him she desires but the distant her who had not yet become sluggish. Another example of the theme of post-menopausal intimacy can be found in “You Know What You Want and How Old Your Eggs Are.” Here Watson delivers a discreet mandate to women to seek love and sex on terms of engagement which make no false promises and will suffer no pretense. Using deceptively simple language (love, wet, dry, fluff, bluff), Watson distills the hyperbole of love and longing to reveal its naked core. There is force and certainty in this poem that has neither the time nor inclination to dawdle.
Moving from romantic love to familial bonds, Watson explores the relationship with her ailing father. In “Salad for Christmas,” she examines the discomfort of watching her father age and the frustrations and indignities that often accompany the process. The beginning of the poem employs “b” sounds that create a plosive staccato urgency that mirrors the emotion around the table—“empty of all but iceberg lettuce, / everyone but him bossed around.” She uses concrete images, “walker” and “commode,” as bulky reminders of the burdens of dependence. Chastising her own impatience, Watson conjures her arrival at the abyss and ends the poem with a reminder to self to keep walking, without losing sight of all that her father’s walks now entail. Watson continues to address the plight of her father in “Not Simple,” a poem that may be actual dialogue between daughter and morphine-impaired father. The poem utilizes bracketed asides that resemble stage direction to indicate the narrator’s actions and observations of her father during and after she’s administered morphine to him. The nonsensical utterances of the father are witnessed and grounded by the daughter’s sensible measured responses; through offers of water and pillow plumping, she seeks to connect to and comfort his loosely tethered psyche. It’s a brutal, heart-wrenching, funny, and pathetic moment, one of complete “edgelessness” where human need and disintegration are glaring.
Edgelessness, a theme running through this collection, is memorialized in the poem “Ode to Edgelessness.” The concept seems to drive Watson’s exploration of love, aging, and borders, as well as the physical and spiritual worlds; the collection’s wide array of topics and the sensitivity with which she engages them is apparent in the poem’s line, “And what is love but / us smudging edges, mad to rub them out.” pray me stay eager is a collection that seeks to erase borders wherever they arise, using language in ways that both please and provoke. The surging pace of the poems is balanced by still contemplations, creating whirls of momentum and reflection which embrace the future while cherishing the imperfect perfection of now.