Temptation by Water                                                                 

    Diane Lockward

    Wind Publications

    600 Overbrook Drive

    Nicholasville, Kentucky 40356

    9781936138128, $15.00

    Michael Meyerhofer


"Save your water and green vegetation," Lockward writes in “The Temptation of Mirage”: "What I want is the desert." But how can we argue with her when she presents the reader with the "eternity of sand" like "an open-air coffin," not to mention the cereus with "its creamy petals like white silk," the fruit "red as a splash of blood"? And that's the beauty of Temptation by Water. Beyond the subtly brilliant way in which these poems are ordered, the poems themselves shine with a crisp lyricism eclipsed only by their humanity and honest lack of pretension.

Right away with the first line of the first poem, “Weather Report,” Lockward lets us know that she knows exactly where we're coming from — but it's OK, because she's been there, too: "It's one of those nights when sleep / is elusive and the TV runs non-stop..." Now that she has our attention, you might expect her to follow this up with a dry, academic treatise on the meaning of life, or else a postmodern non sequitur that leaves us scratching our heads. Instead, Lockward defies our poetic expectations by being solidly, dependably real: she talks of a weatherman who, through a slip of the tongue, says that, "devastation results from desire." Perhaps no truer statement has ever been uttered.

But Lockward goes further, giving us a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a man "who does push-ups / not to lift himself off the ground / but to hold down the earth..." following this up with the startling but poignant image of a woman "who stood in a burning building / and dropped her child out the window / believing someone would catch him..."

The ample humanity of Lockward's poems is obvious; what's perhaps more striking, though, is her sense of humor, as seen in “Side Effects” ("He came with a warning label. / He caused headache, dry mouth, / diarrhea, constipation, depression... He was all trans fats and palm oil...") or these opening lines of “Leaving in Pieces”:

        One morning I awoke

        and found myself married

        to a bald man.

The narrator goes on to detail what used to be the "lustrous" hair of her husband, conveying the humor and underlying rush of mortal recognition when "something / turned to nothing" and "there on the pillow" she was confronted by his "fully exposed skull." In short, it's a poem about aging and mortality — old subjects, sure, but what's fascinating and absolutely redeeming is Lockward's subtle clarity, the infectious joy she displays when writing about even the most mundane or potentially troublesome topics, her way of describing the world with her own distinctive brand of pedestrian, Zen-like beauty.

Though I rarely review poems in the exact order they appear in the book, the next poem bares mention, especially for the subtle, lyrical turns in the first stanza. After the tongue-in-cheek ruminations of the last poem, often seasoned with bald-faced romance ("We frolicked and then we slept..."), a casual reader might easily expect the next poem to follow the same aesthetic, perhaps expounding on the narration of the previous poem. But “What He Doesn't Know” begins with these odd, delightfully unexpected and imaginative lines:

        This is the season of the centipede.

        Concealed by night, he crawls

        across the ceiling,

        here to terrify but not to harm.

That last line is great, I think, because it foreshadows the genius turns to follow:

        How easily he travels at breakneck speed,

        up the drains and down the walls.

        Each of his one hundred legs securely clings,

        each foot so soft and light he sounds no alarm.

This is Lockward at her best: so good that she lulls readers into the best kind of auto-pilot, so that if you don't stop halfway through and switch your conscious brain back on, you'll miss the lyrical acrobatics that are taking place right in front of you. Here, in just a few lines, Lockward has managed to expand the readers' expectations for the entire book while, on the level of this single poem, evoking raw imagination followed by tension (perhaps a bit unsettling), then following that with non-assuming reassurance reminiscent of James Wright, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, or Li Po.

This somewhat pastoral quality also takes on a slightly darker tone in pieces like “A Murmuration of Starlings,” a work of breathtakingly lyrical agility that describes dead birds falling from the air "like water balloons tossed blindly / from dormitory windows," in such a way that we cannot help but agree with Lockward when she asks, "Do we not already think of the fallen, / earth's fields littered with corpses?"

Clearly, this is a book of great range. "The ocean outside my window washes me clean," says the first line “Capturing the Image,” evoking a powerful, in-the-moment view of the air "scented with seaweed and salt." But Lockward's next poem, “The Jesus Potato,” manages to poke fun at a story from FoxsNews.com while maintaining a certain underlying feeling of non-denominational spirituality — quite a feat in any time or political climate.

These are generous poems, sure, but what's also of interest to me is their underlying sense of courage. It's the courage to see the beauty in the "abandoned power plant in Tampa" and how it "fell in on itself... like disaster in slow motion," but it's also a brand of courage exemplified by the previously mentioned poem, “What He Doesn't Know,” which ends on lines that personify, I think, what we all aspire towards, yet Lockward's poetic aesthetic embodies with seemingly effortless humility and grace:

        He has no poetry, no art, no songs,

        but knows no fear when darkness enters a room.

Temptation by Water is available at Amazon.