Michael Waters: Review by Linda Johnston Muhlhausen

Michael Waters: Caw (BOA Editions)
Three Women and a Bat

Michael Waters’ thirteenth and latest poetry collection, Caw, homes in on what feels like unfinished business—not unfinished in a long and stellar poetry career—but unfinished in life. The poems here continue to do what this poet does admirably, mining a vast storehouse of personal experience, informed by scholarly and worldly knowledge, to extract poetic gold. It is the need to claim love from and declare love for a mother, a daughter, and a wife—each, in their way, “the heart’s needle”—that burnishes this collection with an urgency of expression that feels new for this poet.

As ever with Waters’ poetry, there are depths of allusive associations in this collection to parse, in the titles, the epigraphs, the borrowed phrases that amplify and sharpen. But I’ll leave those pleasures largely to the reader to discover. I’d rather dissect the emotional core, to expose the stringy yet velvety pith of these lyric poems, beginning with a father’s struggle in “Vs.”—a title that presides like the specter of courts and lawyers it invokes, while it develops its hellish, first-person narrative in blank verse:

When I thought I might lose my two-year-old

To the machinations of her mother,

I lay awake, the lent mattress muffling

My tom-toming heart & warped floorboards

In an empty (so spooky) railroad flat,

The adamant moon slashing reproaches

Through barred windows, the obscenities—

With these opening lines we are immediately in this spooky place, already emotionally invested and leaning in to find out what happens next. The language is direct but evocative, from the consonance of “machinations,” “mattress muffling” (not even owned, but lent), “tom-toming,” “empty,” “adamant moon,” (“m” is often the first sound mouthed by infants) to the “barred windows” suggestive of a prison. Our narrator lies sleepless while his daughter is in bed in the next room: “Her sleep-sighs loud enough for me to love.” Then, sudden pain, two puncture marks on the speaker’s finger. Enter the bat—or rather, the presumed bat, since the creature is nowhere to be found, a lack that occasions a series of anti-rabies shots given prophylactically “while lawyers jockeyed & my daughter / Shuttled between her mad keepers.” By this time, we have heard and felt the narrator scream with the pain of the shots, exacerbated, we suspect, by the pain of the situation, the larger “obscenities” of two parents engaged in “dragged-out battles” for possession of the beloved child until, at last, medicine and negotiation bring a healing–

my body cleansed of toxins,

& equal time with my girl, the heart’s needle,

For whom, to celebrate, I bought a doll

–brought forth in concluding lines that are packed full of meaning. As explained in the book’s “Notes” section, “heart’s needle” was taken from the title poem of a book by W.D. Snodgrass, who took the phrase from a medieval manuscript. Moreover, Snodgrass was also writing about the loss of a daughter through divorce. But consider how Waters uses its placement for maximum meaning. “Heart’s needle” could have worked earlier in the poem to invoke the adult heart’s vulnerability caused by loving a child. Placed in the poem’s conclusion, however, the metaphor expands into the turn in the last two lines, referring to the doll:

Who wept real tears & wet herself silly

& began to counsel me on joy.

Used as part of the poem’s shift toward a positive future, “the heart’s needle” becomes an inherent contradiction, the prick of pain contained within abiding joy, like the tearful yet celebratory doll.

“Vs.” is a strong example of poetic craft in service of unfinished personal business; in this case, a moving expression of the love of father for daughter. This is a poet writing about what is most meaningful to him, and because this poem feels personal does not mean it lacks universal resonance. That’s where the craft comes in.

 Each line in a Waters poem must count toward the accrual of meaning. “Vs.” conforms to his identifiable poetic signature: a preference for blank verse and the capitalization of the first letter of each line, (seen in The Dean of Discipline, 2018, and Gospel Night, 2011).

Not only must each line support meaning, each word choice must earn its keep. Listen closely to the sounds in “slashing reproaches,” how the ear transmits the fricatives “s” and “sh” to the brain, followed by the howl of the open “o,” for a subtly distressing effect. “Vs.” is deceptive in the way it seems to indulge in the sprawl of prose, but each line contributes an essential element to the poem’s movement. As with the other poems in this collection, the overall effect is cumulative, craftily built, word by word, line by line, brick by brick.

Turning the mirror/off—“mother of flames”

This centerpiece section of 25 poems dedicated “for my mother/b.1927” ranges widely in content, from a son’s reactions to his mother’s past life, to the unease of a present racked with the tragedy of dementia. They are cohesive, however, first of all in their distinctive formatting: lines begin with lower-case letters and are often in couplets rather than longer stanzas. All make liberal use of white space within and between lines, in a visual representation of halting, fractured thought. This basic similarity of appearance allows each poem to be read as part of a whole, even though each presents a fresh and fascinating insight. Wherever they touch down in time, and no matter how chilled with resentment or irritation, the theme of the poems in this section is the persevering love of this son for his mother.

Take, for instance, “dementia dawn,” which bears the cryptic epigraph of a one-word poem by Aram Saroyan: “lighght.”  But what better way to convey the sense of dementia’s mental fragmentation, than this slightly corrupted spelling that puts a familiar word into some twilit zone just beyond our grasp. And so it is with the corruption that is dementia, as we see the mother in her memory-care facility:

she lies      one shoe off       sweater wrongbuttoned

mind awash       with the glimpse       of clean

tablecloths       unstained       napkins       unsoiled

plates       such whiteness       ringed with silver

awaiting the arrival       of this day

that day       this day

This is Dementia 101, in the “wrongbuttoned” sweater, mind “awash” in glimpses of memory, time rendered moot and unremarked. How does what on the surface seems like dispassionate observation still communicate so much compassion? All of the “mother” poems in this collection have this in common–this choice of incisive and insightful details into the mother’s condition that add up to a sympathetic, yet complex, understanding.

Which is not to say that the poems are maudlin; far from it. There are trying moments of dislocation caused by this disease, of diminished awareness and the distance imposed as the sufferer creates her own world, as access to reality shuts down. At times, the situations that arise from this dislocation can be almost comical, as in “minecraft,” when the mother believes her grandson has gone missing while visiting her in the memory care facility. She alarms the staff and other residents into mounting an exhaustive, panicked search. Turns out, the boy was never lost, he was there all along. When her son later asks her if people were angered by the false alarm, “no     she says     what’s wrong with you / we were all so happy      we found him.”

And there are the times when the mother’s past is summoned by the son, and we learn through the course of several poems that she had a difficult history that included, from “ashkenazi,” conversion to Christianity in order to be accepted by her in-laws, and work in a factory sweatshop named “National Powder Puff.”

We get to know a son who witnesses his mother’s condition with bemusement, sympathy, helplessness, caring, punctuated with flares of anger. In “domestic disturbance,” the narrator zeroes in almost mercilessly on his childhood memory of the mother’s violent anger, times when she transformed into a “spitball of spite.” He concludes: “How it wounds her      now    to revive the past / mom     I prod     what else have you lost.” In “white flight,” this theme is repeated and amplified: “it wounds her     now    to relive the past / rageful     I press     who else have you lost.” In the latter, “revive” becomes “relive,” “prod” amplifies to “press,” and “what” is raised to the specificity of “who.”

But the addition of rageful to the refrain carries the most weight, bringing to bear all the bottled up, often justifiable resentments a child may hold toward a parent. It must feel unfair that the parent in dementia escapes culpability for their past by forgetting or reinventing it, while the child still carries the damaging memories. Ironically, the parent is becoming helpless, dependent, more and more the object of pity, making the rage futile, impossible to reconcile.

This clever correspondence between the two poems through repetition of the last lines, with strategic word changes, intensifies our understanding of the narrator’s need to prod, and press, for some admission of regret from the parent, and for the apology that may never come. This is a common human frustration on the part of aging child toward cognitively declining parent, that Waters opens like a cancerous lesion.

The “mother” poems are unobtrusively incisive about the complexities of the parent-child relationship. They divulge episodes from the mother’s often startling past history, juxtaposed with her current, sometimes strangely comic confusion. We come away with the vivid impression that this was a woman to be reckoned with: frustrated and angered by the role of postwar wife and mother, a stickler for propriety, sharply intelligent even now in her dementia. These poems work on one level as simple statements drawn from family and memory.  But they also bring imagery and metaphor to bear to expand and enrich our understanding beyond the bounds of storytelling. They often surprise and sometimes wryly amuse, but always with a foundation of the son’s tenderness that beats like an arrhythmic heart in the white space within and between lines. In “icon,” the poet invokes the image of the Pietà sculpture, in which the virgin mother holds her crucified son across her lap. Now, the caretaking roles are reversed:

slumped on the couch     you     lean against me

then slowly     unfold     the crumpled

parchment of your body     to lie across my lap

if anyone     returns     they’ll see

living sculpture     almost familiar

son & mother     perverse Pietà

Waters does not justify, diminish, or shy away from the hard realities of losing an aging parent to dementia. He also does not spare himself from the truths of his own reactions to this painful narrative.

I don’t want to leave this section without making mention of the attention paid to the mother’s name. Her name is first revealed to us in “the book of names.” It is classed with other “out-of-fashion” names, yet resonant by its singular placement on the page:

And you:


In other poems, the narrator reveals his mother’s sensitivity about her name, and how it is conflated with her sense of self-respect. In “staff,” she bridles when staff at her residence assume the liberty of calling her “Dot” instead of Mrs. Waters. Her name becomes a thread through these poems, always in the background, as another clue to personality.

This thread found its startling origin in Waters’ 2018 The Dean of Discipline, in “Jacquard,” where the speaker reveals that Dorothy is not her real name:

“Hannedore,” she goes on, “written

On my birth certificate, but later changed

To Dorothy Ann,” Americanized,


With this piece of background information, “Dorothy” becomes more than a name; it becomes a symbol of the immigrant experience and the postwar pressure to deny the foreign, and Americanize everything and everyone. This “Inverted” renaming appears as an early marker pointing to the loss of identity suffered by the mother. It is also an indication of the poet beginning to unravel his mother’s history and going on to process its implications more fully in Caw.

In every sense, mother and son are each in their own way “the heart’s needle,” making the narrator vulnerable to the potential for loss, but binding him by the power of love.    

The wife: a rebirth of wonder?

First, a few words about the other women. Yes, there have been girlfriends, who show up here and there in Waters’ poetry, often comically, much to our delight. “I have become handsome in my old age,” begins “Sixties Sonnet” from his 2016 collection, Celestial Joyride, a poem that builds its irony on a remark from an early girlfriend who told him he would only ever be “cute.” But a cute revenge poem is by far not enough for Waters; he undercuts his smug triumph with the juxtaposition of “lonesome” with “handsome,” and with an admission of an undefined “rage” that stood between him and love. As mentioned, “rageful” appears in “white flight,” from Caw.

 And we know from “Vs.” there was a first wife, a contentious divorce. This first wife makes an appearance in “Black Olives” from the 2006 collection Darling Vulgarity, where we see the narrator coming home “. . . bearing now / my little sack of woe, oil seeping through brown paper,” foreshadowing a relationship gone bad.

This sense of relationships gone bad does not preside over the poems in Caw, which celebrate an apparently joyful and loving married and family life with his current wife, the poet Mihaela Moscaliuc. That this relationship is built on a mature and unshakeable foundation is implied in poems such as the wryly humorous “Good Riddance Chicken,” where we are told that “My wife still cooks some meals / Using my ex-girlfriend’s recipes.” What might seem like a bold flirtation with disaster for any husband is unspooled with a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek that we surely must believe is enabled by the narrator’s confidence in the solidity of their bond. But ah, the wife still stakes her personal claim:

Now my wife

Revises each directive, shunning

Grapes but adding orange wheels

Or switching shitake for wild chanterelle

Food, and feeding are frequent themes in Waters’ love poems—the hunger and need for the beloved, this beloved, as in “Self-Portrait with Doll (1920-21),” where an opening narrative slides into the sensual, lush language of  “. . . craving / Your body, its clefts and moist creases / Perfumes and spices,” followed by the “inexhaustible desire / For your lashes and lobes.” And finally, there is “. . . your breath, always your breath / Which keeps us both alive.” We have enjoyed Waters’ love poems before, full of lust and need and adulation, and now we have a more pressing theme: love so strong that it wards off the specter of death.

Intimations of Mortality

In a final group of poems, in part there are sins to be expiated: personal, collective, political, the “cruelty & injustice of us all” from “2: NYC” to be recognized. There are birds “believed to carry away sins when set free,” from the epigraph of “Red-Billed Firefinch.” Most of all, there is the presence of the crows, superstitiously once thought to be the dark omens of death. The book’s title derives from a line in an Allen Ginsberg poem, here rendered loud and insistent in all-upper-case. The entire collection is haunted by association with the unworldly, trenchant sound of the crow’s call, as well as ink-blot graphics of black crows perched on, or winging across, white pages. In some mythologies, crows were also thought to guide the dead to the next world. In any case, suggests “One Caw,” their sudden silence is ominous: “One caw, then silence. / Something horrible about to happen.” In the context of this poem, the something horrible may be a young person of color killed by police.

The prospect of death looms like a murder of crows over this collection; yet, in this final section, it is held at bay by the presence of conjoined spirits, “this human chain” from the book’s dedication. In “Electric Fence,” this metaphorical conjunction becomes literal when husband, wife, and young son join hands, grab the fence, and allow the electricity to course like “red thread through all three of us.”

Connection, the poem then suggests, might yet unite our country into a “stricken–and still smoldering–family,” touching obliquely yet suggestively on the current dilemma of national division and conflict.  Several of these poems register comment in this way on the current sins and ills of American society–

–but sorry, gentle reader. We must return to the dreaded subject–death. Though I suspect death has inhabited poetry as long as there has been poetry, Waters’ intimately playful yet deadly serious musings on the subject are unique and startlingly memorable.          

In “Good Dead Person,” the narrator leaves tongue-in-cheek instructions for his own erasure after death:

Please don’t inscribe my name on a tombstone,

Or place there a passage from my favorite book.

I have no favorite book.

The poem continues in this “Please don’t” vein, until it changes direction:

When our children mention my name,

Insist that you don’t remember me

Tell them you remember nothing but my love,

Always there like the moon . . .

“Good Dead Person” is one of several poems that fend off death with ironic humor, yet tackle it very tellingly, chillingly, all the same. “Ashes,” “Postscript to Ashes,” and “Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (1897),” each cut closer and closer to the visceral realities of age and the inevitability of death. In “Nobody’s Poem,” which closes the collection, our narrator is surrounded by shelves groaning with old literary journals, in which his words and those of countless other poets are entombed in dust. Rather than rising to celebrate a long and successful poetic career, the language diminishes, darkens, weighed down with “solitude,” “unwanted,” “dumped,” “dust,” “damp,” and the word “down” repeated closely four times in the last four lines. A terrible sense of erasure in death comes through, until a living person brings down a volume

To drag one finger down the list of contributors:

Nobody, nobody, name, nobody, nobody

All the way down to the cold damp ground.

And oh, how fearful the prospect of being forgotten, inhabiting absence; yet, there is that hand, that finger, the rung bell of a recognized name long after the poet became a literal “no-body.” There is living memory, this poem suggests, to mediate against the finality of death.

But must the self-diminishment, self-denial, self-erasure of the poet himself stand as the last word of this collection? No, we won’t have it, not in the case of a much-admired poet who has devoted a lifetime to the art and craft of poetry, studying it, teaching it, living it. If there is unfinished business being vetted in Caw, it is this poet’s continued unraveling of the mystery of love, in all its death-defying power. We trust this is a business that is not finished. “Who knows where in the body love resides,” begins the poem “Scientific American.” No speculation is necessary to know that it resides in Caw, thanks to Michael Waters’ enduring capacity to let us feel it in the arterial pulse of his poetry.   

Linda Johnston Muhlhausen has had poetry book reviews previously published in American Poetry Review, 32Poems.com, Pleiades, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and This Broken Shore.

Table of Contents | Next Page