Book Review: AT THE WATERLINE by Brian K. Friesen

At the Waterline
by Brian K. Friesen
Ooligan Press, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

Inspired by his firsthand experiences while working on the Columbia River, Brian K. Friesen’s debut novel, At the Waterline, is a reflective, multi-faceted story. The book follows Chad, a man with a penchant for the water, through his mission to find himself after his tragic divorce. A student of literature and writing, he lives in his broken-down boat and works in a shop on the marina, spending much of his time examining the people around him, comparing them to himself, and searching for meaning in every interaction.

Upon starting the book, every reader should appreciate the two sketches Friesen included in the front. The first is a guide to the landscape of the novel, and the second offers a diagram of boat anatomy. Both proved helpful along the way. Much like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, being able to follow the characters of At the Waterline around the simple contours of the map added a layer of entertainment. And the boat diagram is something I always felt Moby-Dick lacked, as a book that employs an abundance of nautical terms. It isn’t exhaustive, but as someone unfamiliar with boats, I referenced it frequently.

The novel contains a large cast of characters, and everyone in the story is unique, pulling dread, resonance, and love from the reader in their own corresponding moments. I found the most compelling characters to be Moe, a Native American allegorist, and Barry, a former priest. Moe is only present in the novel for a short time, but his spirit persists through the characters’ thoughts and memories of him for the duration of the story, continuing to influence their lives even when he’s gone. Barry’s story is surprising; as someone who is introduced subtly and initially seems to be a minor character, the layers Friesen continuously adds to enlighten the reader of his fall and return to priesthood are unexpected, yet delightful.

Friesen does a touching job of nudging characters towards realizing the flaws in their present situation and begin tending to their self-fulfillment. He often does so with interpretive metaphors, such as the moment Moe details the fish he found in the bilge of his boat. Nobody (including Moe himself) can fathom how a fish could have gotten there; Moe insists that it isn’t about how it got there, but the significance lies in the very nature of the fish being there at all. This seems to be an implication of Moe’s isolation (or fish-out-of-water-ness) as a Native American adopted into the marina life. For Moe, the fish appears to be a significant component in motivating his departure from this life to one more faithful to his own culture and religion, as he decides to head back into the water and sail upstream.

Chad is clearly the main character, and as a recent college graduate, a divorcee, and a man searching for himself, he’s relatable on many levels. Unfortunately, he’s often lost in the alternating of points-of-view—and with upwards of a dozen characters, this happens a lot. While each character Friesen manipulates is no less interesting than the next, I wanted to hear the major events of the story filtered through Chad, rather than cycle through the eyes of each character. I craved development for Chad, but this took time.

I enjoyed every character’s unique path because Friesen fuels their motivations with authentic fretfulness and surprising reactions, but several of them only directly interact with one or two of the other main characters. Coupled with the shifts in POV, it made for a relatively uneven narrative and lessened the impact of many of the greatest events.

Despite the issues, the book is a success because of the passion behind the prose. Simple moments are turned into religious experiences in the blink of an eye, like Barry’s concerned empty fuel tank turning into a blessed sailing trip that presented him with an abundant river of flying Coho, a fish thought to be endangered.

Even with the waterfall of sound, he felt peace and a great fullness in his chest. There was music in the wind. A song that played in the sails and jib sheets and whatever it was that pulled him upstream. The din of traffic from the highway blended with the crashing of the water, but there was music in that, too. What he could only think of as a violent peace had taken hold of him, as if peace were not silent at all but rather a wild, roaring blessedness.

Even Jack, the ancient aggressor of the Marina, has some poetry to offer with his wisdom in the rare moments he isn’t paroxysmal:

Sometimes a line is all that stands between you and the chaos that the wind and the river can bring. It doesn’t matter how big or fancy your boat is. If you don’t have lines, you’re fucked. You’ve got no way of tying yourself off to anything, and life on the water just isn’t possible unless you’re hanging on to something else, whether it’s a dock or an anchor or your own damn balls. Without the line, you’re just drifting.

Brian K. Friesen’s At the Waterline is pervaded with rot, knots, and rust. It shimmers with history and knowledge from experience and shared tales. It’s about the people at the waterline, how they treat each other, and how they treat themselves. It shows us how the marina life both bolsters and degrades you. Above all, it’s a story of running away, living in stagnation somewhere in between life and death, and finding a way to leave it safely behind you in the wake of foam.


The Mouth of the Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

Often, we’ll talk about the ear of a poem—its aurality, how the poem sounds. We talk about alliteration and rhyme and the elusive “flow” of the poem and figure out that poems are about how they sound in our ear as listeners. And why not? We go to poetry readings, sit in the audience, pay rapt attention to the sounds of each poem. Even books about poetry writing (and poetry reading, for that matter) talk about the sounds of poetry. Poems make sounds. We hear them.

But that’s not solely the case. Poems make sounds because we as writers make them. More and more I think about the orality of the poem: not how the poem effects the ear of the listener, but how it effects the mouth of the speaker. This is alien, I believe, because we often read other people’s poems silently and so our mind’s mouth is doing the work, and our mind’s ear is hearing the sounds. Speaking a poem is dramatically different than reading it silent. We become aware of the complexity of breath, of how our mouths and tongue move in the making of words.

Consider, for instance, the opening stanza of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” by speaking it aloud:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The sibilant easy sounds that start us off immediately are followed by a dental T sound forcing our tongue high in the mouth. Furthermore, “too” carries with it an implied pause. Line two moves between plosives, which force our mouths to shut and push breath outward, “Put” and “BlueBlack” and guttural K sounds, in which our mouths are slightly open and again we’re forcing breath out: “Clothes, “blaCK,” and “Cold.” These force us to stop, shift our mouths and breath. That line ends on the dental D sound which forces our teeth shut as we inhale. These dental sounds continue in combination with gutturals in line three forcing our mouths to open and shut, particularly at the end of the line as we must go high in the mouth for the long A sound, followed by a guttural and a dental. It continues like this moving our mouths high and low, making our lips, teeth, tongue, and breathing “labor” in order to reflect the physical labor of the father’s work, and the conflicts in the house.

This is important to the poem as how Hayden shifts his use of sounds as the speaker’s attitude toward his father softens. Say the last stanza aloud and you will hear my point:

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Yes, there are numerous types of sounds here too, but their relationship to each other is not nearly as close together, our mouths don’t have to perform acrobatics in order to say them. As William Packard puts it, “the secret of effective [poetic] closure is more musical than meaningful, and has more to do with the resolution of syntax and diction than it has to do with imparting any pretentious philosophical summary of the way this universe works.”
We see something similar when a poet uses too much alliteration so that certain lines might feel like a tongue twister when we try to say them aloud. Several times in recent workshops students have had trouble speaking lines in their poems due to the “tongue twister effect.” Their response to the obvious question invariably is something akin to this: “I don’t read my poems aloud when I’m writing or revising.”

Looking at another famous poem, we can see that not only is the relationship of consonant and vowel sounds important to the orality of the poem, but the line itself and how we break it is crucial to our ability to speak a poem. Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous “The Pool Players” teaches us a lot about how a line break, enjambed, forces our breath to change.

We real cool. We
Skip school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Consider how the enjambment happens right after a new sentence begins, forcing a hesitancy at the line break immediately after a full stop. We are forced to reconsider our normal breathing in speaking a sentence. Adding to the internal rhyme and the occasional alliteration, we have a chronic reaffirmation of the lives of these “seven at the golden shovel,” lives that are cut short along with the line at the poem’s end on “Die soon.” We’ve conditioned our bodies in the seven previous lines to expect to take another breath with a hesitancy, a breath that never comes.

Line is often all about breath. Again, we’re left considering the orality of the poem—what it takes physically to speak the line as given. We might hear cadence and the variable foot, but just as we hear rhythm in the speech of people in a restaurant or a song, we have to be able to speak/sing the line of the poem. This is best exemplified in “Howl” and how much breath it takes to say just the opening line:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Having read Ginsburg’s poem aloud several times, I’m keenly aware of the physical experience of reading it: it’s akin to speaking a marathon, and not only because of its length so much as because of the length of its lines. Although there are pauses in the line that allow us to catch quick gulps of air, the line refuses to let us actually breathe. Remember, a howl, is one long exhalation. By poem’s end we’re “beat.”

All of which to say that reading poems is not a passive act of listening to the voice in our head, it is a physically interactive act. The best poets are considering not just the cadences of their words and phrases, but the biophysical experience of speaking those lines and how those active sounds help make meaning. If we agree with that poetic cliché that “form enacts meaning” then we need to consider the form not only in terms of line and stanza, fixed and free verse, but the form of our mouths as we speak the words, the lines.