James Martin Spears: Review of Judith Vollmer


The Water Books by Judith Vollmer (Autumn House Press)

vollmer cover


Lotus in the Pond


Judith Vollmer is an award-winning poet whose poetry in other collections has tended to focus on cityscapes and urban life. Often, her poems are either inspired by or set in her native Pittsburgh. While some poems in her fifth published poetry collection, The Water Books, occur in places as diverse as Delaware and Rome, the poetry does not stray far from what has molded her life—her family, both in America and in Poland, and the city in which she grew up. Still, many poems in the collection explore natural settings, sometimes juxtaposing the urban and the rural. In this collection, as in others, past, present, and future experiences and observations give every poem dimension and texture.

     Poems in The Water Books sometimes confront ugliness, often with the divine, the grandiose, and the gorgeous as a backdrop. Vollmer does not try to beautify the appalling, and she does not hide the intimate or the relevant behind the pastoral or the rural. She readily dredges muck when it is muck that the reader must see, as in “Cleaning the Alley,” where “I’m sweating breathing // bargrease & diesel & sucking lungfuls of heavy- / metal dust, get more bags, a bucket of water.” Nor is she timid about guiding a reader toward imagery worth seeing for its own sake. In “Birds of Rome,” Vollmer writes, “I offered crumbs & straws to the laborers weaving nests into the  / Janiculum and sat on a bench before the viale rustica waiting / with secrets & shadows.” At other times, imagery has meaning. In “January Work,” “clocks / slide numbers down into the accumulating / past.”

      The poems are conscious of place and time, never truly abandoning Pittsburgh or Poland. In “Camping on the Hudson,” “I walk the banks as if they were mine, magnified / versions of the small rivers of home.” The range of familiar imagery and meaning allows the poems to transcend time and space, making them accessible to virtually anyone. What the poems convey is that life is transitory. Whether it is through the speaker’s dismay in “A Reckoning,” where she says, “Time it— / goggles speeding past,” or through the speaker’s lament in “Hole in the Sky,” in which “the huge rushes & mists furled / upward, escapes always up into the sky,” the voice says that nothing—neither beauty nor the grotesque—is permanent.

     Poems that seem merely imagistic present, in a nuanced way, a world that pulsates around the particulars on which the poetic voice focuses. Past the point of departure for “Trees at Night”— trees’ slight gyrations before a storm strikes—much more is implied. The storm that is about to arrive from Chicago will devastate the placidity on which the speaker meditates, but, much like the trees of Millay’s “City Trees,” the city already buffets them. Vollmer’s speaker suggests that without “the strata of fryer grease & bar smoke, sewer acid” and the accumulation of urban detritus—“railings / & bumpers, eyeglasses & bottle shards...” trees’ offering would be something other than “astringents.” Trees, though, do whatever they can to disinfect their immediate place; their “processing,” valuable for healing an environment in which they and humans coexist, “all under the spell of the late October New Moon.” Yet, trepidation lingers. In the background of “rustling / whose sound if properly recorded would be soft as dust” lurks a storm, threatening to upheave the peace, trees, humans, and astringent processing. Images of the trees, contrasted against the city’s ugliness, create the trees’ stoicism, but the looming storm helps shape a sense that the trees are actually vulnerable.

     While images in “Trees at Night” have discernible meaning beyond themselves, something at an intellectual level, not all imagery in Vollmer’s poems do. Some exist solely for the speaker’s and readers’ appreciation. In those poems, Frost’s and Gary Snyder’s influences are apparent. In “Skyline & Sky,”  the speaker is astonished at Jasper Johns’ ability to capture the cattails, pots, sand hills, and jays she adores. The cattynines are the speaker’s prominent focus, establishing a middle ground between the speaker and the horizon—“the height they project sharpens my / comprehension of skyline & sky.” Images the speaker sees then merge into sketches in Johns’ book at line fifteen. Then, the speaker meditates on how realistically Johns has captured a view of nature in his sketches—“He called it scribbling / but could do it in his sleep.” The speaker voices her awe for both her reality and the sketch art—“I imagine / him thinking then sketching time / itself as it occurs in the making of  / a cattail reed.”

     Vollmer’s prose-poem “When, on a Late March Evening” is different. Baudelaire’s influence is apparent here in that the poem reveals the world as it unfolds around the speaker, who presents it as though reporting. The long lines are like those of an op-ed column. Both the poem’s form and the first-person point of view confer the succession of images with personal meaning. Later, though, her reaction to her political theory professor’s generalizations instantly transforms the images’ qualities of being personal to being widely accessible. While much of the poem observes the world in a semi-detached Baudelairean way, it departs from that style when the speaker announces what she feels in line ten—“Sick of fear”—which sets the tone for the poem’s last two and a half lines—“I eat & preen, whisper / to my dead who made me when they were young and taught me to keep a / wish even a mini-vision going under the drum-tight clock tower.” In those lines, the speaker is tenacious.

     The first three lines establish the poem’s urban setting with their mention of a bus stop, sidewalk, and block. These are what the speaker sees repeatedly, as she suggests in her description of “the bus stop girl” and “the hooded guy.” The article “the” gives the people specificity. These are people she sees often. Additionally, the speaker’s immediate time is somewhat rigid. She sees the bus stop girl and the hooded guy while she rides the city bus. Her reflection on the hooded guy, though,—“Now he’s older”—gives time some dimension. The now and the then work together at adding depth to the speaker’s familiarity with her place—a history that she shares with other people she sees. The temporal and spatial dimensions the speaker reveals suggest a rhythm of life that, on one hand, is artificial, as though adhering to schedules; on the other hand, though, it is organic—entropic—changing, growing old. That semi-schizophrenic rhythm allows the speaker to have an opinion and to voice her tenaciousness at the poem’s end. She is in awe of that foreboding rhythm. Though the stand she takes at the end is a firm one—against fear—she knows that time weighs against her. Just like “my dead who made me when they were young,” she also must eventually die, as must the bus stop girl and the hooded guy.

     The poem is an articulation of that common thread underlying each poem in The Water Books—life is transitory. The speaker of “New Black Dress,” in asking


                        Would it be nice          to go from youth straight to death

                        no thin hair      loose teeth       no mind-slipping         just the ragbin


does not so much inquire about anything as point toward the inevitable and that the journey there eventually turns ugly. Poems, then, in which the speaker merely regards what she sees are statements. If ugliness is eventual, then life’s immense gorgeousness is worth seeking out. It is worth a person’s spending as much time as she desires on appreciating that grandeur. Nevertheless, “the drum-tight clock tower” of “When, on a Late March Evening” keeps a close watch. Ugliness cannot be fully staved off, and beauty cannot be fully apprehended. Regardless of whether the speaker laments or busies herself, as in “Cleaning the Alley,” Rome becomes only memory; Poland, mythical; and Pittsburgh, nothing more than a place where the poetic voice is “waiting / with secrets & shadows,” anticipatorily, stubbornly.



James Martin Spears earned an MFA in Poetry from Drew University, and he teaches English composition at Louisiana State University at Eunice.