Book Review: The Water Books by Judith Vollmer

The Water Books: Poems
Judith Vollmer
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press

reviewed by Mike Walker

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to introduce a poet, or even a review of her book. Where do you start? The first poem in the volume, the biography of the poet who wrote it? Most of the time, I would consider the book as a collection or the primary themes therein, but for once it seems the vocation of the author—as a writer and teacher—is somewhat central, so it is here where we will enter the Water Books.

Judith Vollmer, a professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburg and Drew University, takes on a vast study of life in all its manifestations in her fourth collection of poems. While many poets have faculty appointments in departments of English and/or creative writing, Vollmer’s devotion to pedagogy is somewhat special, as it is very evident in her writing; so much so, in fact, to make mention of her professorship seems essential to any review. Vollmer’s work is in places very personal—such as her poem “Camping on the Hudson”—but also highly studied works of precise composition that showcase a devotion to poetic form, as in “Birds of Rome” and “Fields Near Rzeszow”. So it seems only appropriate—only fair even—to point out Vollmer’s role as a teacher, as her new collection could be used as a great point of departure into the study of contemporary poetic forms. Vollmer springs from one style to another with little effort and, more importantly, always with an eye to maintaining a steady and strong voice as a poet. This ability, when actually found (which is itself quite uncommon) I’ve discerned is almost always located in poets who are also teachers. The teacher, it seems—via teaching forms, teaching approaches to writing—also teaches herself the same skill over and again.

At a short seventy-five pages, Vollmer also performs an impressive feat of including not only a powerful depth and scope of her writing, but a pithy, comprehensive, development of the topical matter of her poems despite the length of the book. You read through the book feeling it is a lot longer than it really is, in part due to the weight of some of the topics she approaches—fallen troops’ corpses returning stateside via Dover Air Force Base, in example—but also because her poems, like Ezra Pound’s, Cynthia Zarin’s, or Geoffrey Hill’s, are difficult, demanding, and astute works. Even at a mere page or two, they command the reader’s complete attention in the way of a complex novel. In places her writing seems nearly to dare the eye to not follow it, dashing around the page, leaving thoughts hanging on the sides of margins, yet this is of course a pedagogical method itself to in fact ensure the reader stays engaged and fully aware of the trajectory at hand. Vollmer seems to include in places an anathema against not reading with care, the fact her words detail crucial events, serious moments, and do such well. We are implored, begged and even nearly scolded into reading her in places by the summation of her own adroit language. She is—again I will state it—a teacher, and like Emily Dickinson we get the impression her wars are laid away in books. Probably many of them. Maybe an entire library.

What has the teacher learned? She’s seen a lot, though she’s not positioning herself foremost as a dedicated world traveller or travel writer. Instead, what is most powerful about Vollmer’s writing is when her poetry finds its catalyst at home: when she writes of the nearby, she cuts through the ice, she brings out the intimacy of place in a way few poets bother to do today. In “Field Near Rzeszow”, she is of course in Poland, at the scene, at the site, but she’s manifested herself as something more—not just the poet who happens upon an apt topic when far from home, but one who brings it back in her pocket with the knowing and familiar feeling she applies in other poems that are in fact crafted close to the lamp-stead of home instead of many kilometers away. Vollmer quickly admits when she feels uncertainty or that her presence is alien to a landscape, but never does it stop her from writing. She is confident though delicate in places; sure though obviously at times secretly half-doubting. There is a most kind and open honesty steeled in such writing.

Like most reviewers of poetry, I often take advantage of how poems can be quoted in reviews—a trick much more difficult to pull off in a meaningful way with fiction—but with Vollmer, this trick is on most of her poems a lost effort: in her poem “When, On a Late March Evening”, Vollmer builds a consummate though quick narrative in a simple paragraph. She tells us a story, at first we’re not even sure a story about what, per se, but a homeless man who slept on her garage’s roof, a student who expressed some sympathy for this man, words of a former professor . . . a lot of ideas run together quickly, in the way that poetry is the ideal form to convey such ideas, but also the beauty is that in a fleeting moment here, Vollmer approaches the depth of fiction—for she is working in effect in prose and benefits from its mechanisms. Again, her abilities lay in her experience as a teacher and scholar, for it takes someone who really knows the language to pull this stuff off. A few writers come to mind who were not teachers—Dawn Powell in her novels, in example—who mastered the language in a pedagogical manner, in a way that was craft-born but also dedicated to expressing, if not lessons, actually, at least things that want to be learned. In Vollmer’s poetry, there is no lack of ideas and opinions that are crying out to be heard.

In Vollmer’s poem “A Pittsburgh Novel”, she traces out so many small aspects of life in her city, using the metaphor but also the reality of the novel as her map. Our aforementioned friend Dawn Powell, once stated that “a novel must be a rich forest known at the start only by instinct”, and that seems a fair and noble claim to place on Vollmer’s poems in The Water Books, too.

Until the storm arrives from Chicago, they will rock or sway
their uppermost stick-bundles & leaf-crowns

Thus opens Vollmer’s poem “Trees at Night” and gives you a sense of her language, the word-craft of a poet but one who via either her own fiat and industry or the adept study of that of others has come to learn much from the trade of fiction writers. Vollmer has a way of getting into the heart of nature without ever making it cloying or seem too much a ready stand-in for her other explorations. Her nature, her wilds she camps in, her trees even swaying in the gentle wind before the coming storm—this nature is deep, damp, and dense: it is the heavy nature of the mid-Atlantic and New England states. She does her region a great service in how she describes it, and moreover, she does it fully and honestly.

Kindling, a bonfire in honor of Pasolini,
who prayed to his own mother, cursing & thanking her for too much love.

Here again, we have within a slight few words a grand scope of vision, despite scant details. The camping/hiking/outdoorsy/woodlands feeling is here once more, as it is cast like sunlight far and wide all over Vollmer’s poetry, and her musings on Pasolini are made not only stronger but more personal via her inclusion of something outside of the man himself. All at once, her words become about Pasolini and act as a mechanism for knowing him while also something very removed from him. Vollmer is a real master of the elements, of the poet’s ability to truncate meaning and then, as if adding water to a powder, action out some bliss of chemistry and rebuild the short and sweet into a long-form meaning.

A funny thing happened while I was reading The Water Books: I knew I’d encountered Vollmer before but simply thought it was in literary journals—she’s published a lot—and really didn’t give it a second thought; after all, she’s established, it wouldn’t be odd in the least I had read her work before. However, then it struck me: this is the same woman who wrote a book of poems entitled Reactor in 2004. How could I forget? Reactor concerns, at least in a general sense, the nuclear power industry and its plans to ship nuclear waste to a remote site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada for long-term storage—a plan that has been hotly contested and protested by a variety of groups and communities. Much of my own research concerns nuclear power and nuclear physics, and I recall Vollmer’s book at the time angering me somewhat, for in that book she not only seemed highly opposed to the Yucca Mountain project but also nuclear power in general and expressed such by mustering out stereotypes of nuclear danger we’ve had at least since the Silkwood movie came out in the early 1980s. At points Reactor thus felt trite and hardly rooted in actual science, as are many fictional and artistic explorations of nuclear power or nuclear . . . well, really nuclear anything. All you need is some flashing lights, men in white space suits, and a doctor who has never seen such a horrible mess before (it helps to make the doctor pretty, like Dr. Crusher or Dana Scully)—then you have a nuclear disaster certain to scare and enthrall! Yet even where I didn’t agree with Vollmer’s views nor always how she chose to express those views, I did even then highly admire her writing. The Water Books provide her with a slate to consider a much more varied array of topics with the same powerful ability at discernment and the same strong will to produce a reaction in her reader.

I don’t make mention of Reactor to say I think any less of Vollmer—I don’t, and again, if anything she impressed me greatly by at once saying things I didn’t fully agree with yet saying these things in a way that won me over at least to her aesthetics, if not her politics. She may have the same effect on a few readers in The Water Books when she takes jabs at former vice president Dick Cheney and others, but once again she does so with the most adroit constructions of language. If anything, the tropes she employed in Reactor are gone or at the least more refined in The Water Books and nothing comes off as trite or insincere or trying too hard. Vollmer’s greatest triumph in this volume is that she is, mainly via her expressions nature and its effect on the human psyche, able to convey a sense of peace and clarity while she is also able to demonstrate what she views as problems or injustices in the world as things that violate or disturb this natural realm of peace. Of course, that is also a role of the teacher: to identify what is right and wrong and speak of it, to let her students know about it, and encourage their own ability and willingness to do the same.

Judith Vollmer should be better-known to the general public than she is, but then again, how much of the general American public reads contemporary poetry? If they did—if the majority of us did—I hope we would know her, for we should know her: she expresses complex thoughts directed by heartfelt emotion on current issues that face our society. In The Water Books she is able to do very well something I felt she didn’t quite accomplish in Reactor, which is to ground her views in fact and, where fact alone is found immaterial, she set up her stance on the firm ground of powerful backdrops including the natural world so lovingly sketched out in many of her poems. Vollmer is never ostentatious and it is even rare that she is verbose, yet she can with a real economy of language produce something beautiful and often powerfully discursive. Vollmer proves she can write what she sees, and what is more, use those places, aspects, and items as stages for larger ideas, and via this approach she provides us with a real wealth of material in a small volume writ large as life in The Water Books.


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