Commodore   by Jacqueline Waters  drawings by Selina Reber   Ugly Duckling Presse , 88 pages, December 1, 2017 

Commodore

by Jacqueline Waters

drawings by Selina Reber

Ugly Duckling Presse, 88 pages, December 1, 2017 

 

REVIEWED BY THOMAS COOK

If you walked past the speaker of a Jacqueline Waters poem at an airport, or in front of the dairy, or on an actual cloud, she may not see you, regardless of your hair color. In “‘I’m Entitled to My Opinion,’” a prose poem of four paragraphs spread over as many pages, Waters writes “Blond people are invisible to you, so you have to be extremely careful not to ignore them completely. It’s as if there’s nothing for your brain to hold.” The brain, or the consciousness on the pages of Waters’ collection Commodore, has trouble holding on to things because it's not things that she sees. She see forms. The poems in Commodore are concerned more with the shape of a movement than what moves. Waters' poems aren't abstract, though. They look at what's essential.

Commodore contains several modes. In short, lyric poems like “A Child to the State,” Waters often uses aphoristic expressions to set up an ambiguous and playful atmosphere. “Whatever you care for you diminish,” she writes. In other words, approaching things in the world is dangerous. But it’s not dangerous because we’re truly capable of changing or diminishing the things of the world. It’s dangerous because a world of forms is chameleonic, because its forms morph with the passing of time, or the longer we look:

 

Facts remain the same, changing with the day

While what is true of one repeats

By turning true of another.

 

Later in the same poem, Waters cites clouds as an example of this phenomenon: “Take inventive forms like clouds / Owing the world a form.”

This introduction to Commodore may make Waters sound like more of a mystic than she is. Though poems like “A Child to the State” and “Stiff Hedge” (“It is your right to be lost / in your experience”) directly engage existential themes, Waters enjoys coupling philosophical observations with humor and the banal. In, “If I Get Taken Away or Like Snatched,” the speaker considers a potato and a Post-it left on her kitchen counter. The Post-it indicates there are yet more potatoes in the garage, and the speaker considers her reply before, it seems, she realizes she’s alone: “I don’t answer, so no one does.”   

Reading Waters is most rewarding when she turns over an idea, typically regarding the shape of an action, like allowing someone to squeeze by you in an airplane seat, for example. In “Others Need to Get in Your Row,” Waters writes, “For an ordinary person, everything is temporary.” The poem moves from “dry shampoo” to polar bears crashing through ice while trying to kill fake fish (“So the development of humility begins / with a strangely lavish / waste of forces”).

Each at first seemingly dissonant inclusion in the poem begins to resonate with the compactness and discomfort of airplane rows. “I’m not going anywhere I’m just standing,” Waters writes in the next moment, “between two recycling bins getting rained on.” When we arrive in the actual row at the end of the poem, and the question of whether to pull in one’s legs or “stand and hover” crosses the speakers mind, the poem returns to its most probing register. Is all that we’ve just read parsing “the difference between / mere succession and real causation”? Can we truly know, ultimately, if we

 

fell down from the push

                fell down

                                 a moment after the push?

 

Commodore also inhabits recognizably American culture. “Candor,” a poem divided into sections by an arbitrary sequence of dates (3/2011, 4/2011, 5/2011), considers Gerard Hopkins, ShopRite bags, and YouTube, taking pleasure in the use of phrases like “don’t get it twisted” without losing the preoccupation with forms: “In this river is a time of change / shape-shifting / ankle-touching.”

One of the most impressive achievements in Commodore is that we grow convinced by how the speaker sees the world: a field of forms always transforming. In “Scissor Half,” Waters writes “Really I’ve got to find a place / to lie down and go to work,” and we’re left thinking about the shape of that action. What kind of a place is that? It’s a delightfully conflicting desire, and toward the end of the book Waters turns increasingly self-reflexive about the book’s themes. In “Protocol,” she describes reading another book, and her experience bleeds into the poem’s metaphor:

 

I enjoy reading this book about giant waves

Penetrating so many secrets we’ve no breath left for the unknowable

The cold can balanced

on the half-ajar door

 

In “The End,” she reflects “They say the bomb           of your central question / will tick inside the head / of your reader,” and this is precisely what the book has been constructing. Surrounding all of this apprehension of forms is a question about the nature of reality, how we have to gather it into meaning despite being just one form among many; we are like Waters' poems: “You’re lucky / you’re my book,” she tells us in “It Isn’t Easy.” “You are sick / of motioning / so you probably won’t / wave me over anymore.”

This of course isn’t true, because I would wave Waters and this book over whenever I wanted to make my world strange in the most fruitful way, whenever I wanted to see the table or the vase, my water glass or paper weight or cold can in and of themselves. Waters reveals the fun of looking, of seeing the world in all its strangenesses and affinities. The final poem “All Ears” is one of the long and rangy variety that turns over thought so well, and I feel I’m seeing as much as I am reading “Centered in the display of pens / is a small pad / stuck to the rack for testing.” After I'm taught to see more clearly by reading these poems, my attention on the world shows it to be “Generally squiggles, occasionally / the well-formed word.”

 

Thomas Cook edits and publishes Tammy with JoAnna Novak and Tyler Flynn Dorholt. He is the author of four poetry chapbooks and lives in Los Angeles.