Jo Langdon reviews Ephemeral Waters by Kate Middleton
by Kate Middleton
Reviewed by JO LANGDON
‘Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find obsessive’, begins Joan Didion in ‘Holy Water’, an essay from the author’s 1979 collection The White Album. It was this essay and its attentiveness to water and human responses to it that came to mind recurrently in reading Sydney poet and essayist Kate Middleton’s second poetry collection, Ephemeral Waters, a book-length poem that follows the Colorado River across five states in a poetic exploration of landscape and the human imagination. It is a stunning sequence, and a book that continues to pursue the intersections between poetry and other written forms, blending and blurring generic conventions in its focus on the ‘real’ world.
Poetry is often the language we turn to in order to express love, loss and other experiences of extremity. Poems appear frequently at weddings and funerals, and are often written or recited in response to violent and traumatic events. The mode is similarly associated with the extreme by way of the sublime: the ineffable or overwhelming extremities of immense environments and landscapes. At the end of the book, Middleton notes that the project offered an opportunity to ‘chase the sublime’. ‘Inevitably,’ she writes in a two-page epilogue (‘Reflection, After’), ‘the river kept expanding around me, and flooding over me. Even as my understanding of how much I would never know grew and grew, my own ardent naiveté kept me from sinking’ (124). Collaging archival materials, conversations, ‘found’ language, and moments of subjective experience and observation, Ephemeral Waters skilfully, seamlessly apprehends both the tangible and intangible force of the Colorado in all its immensity.
It’s important to stress that quoting from this bookcan do no justice to the poetry as it appears on the page. Along with the margin notes—ephemera that supplement, double, and at times diverge from the primary text—Middleton’s use of space and the shape of the poetry is itself a feature of this work. The enjambments are always accomplished and, importantly, the lines never slip into prose or the prosaic. When a story, fragment of history, or lines of conversation arrive, it is never at the expense of the poetry—or more specifically, the poet’s use of language.
Most remarkable is how much Middleton has included in what are sweeping and yet often spare lines: the landscapes arrive with a great sense of tactility, and dialogues rush forward, frequently in humorous, surprising ways. ‘No, you can’t see the river / from here – the sign says so’ (83), we read in Arizona (or overhear, rather, as the note ‘2nd Speaker’ in the margin suggests). Wry observations such as this appear elsewhere, such as at a scenic lookout pages earlier, where a young boy sits next to the poet and, ‘as if he has practised his sigh tells me in the voice of / a seasoned traveller Well, it sure is Grand’ (77).
Ephemeral Waters opens with ‘Instruction (Prologue)’, and immediately introduces both the river and poet’s proportions: ‘none of it / is yours It does not / acknowledge you’; ‘You will learn / something You will learn / nothing but absence, but rock’s / wonderful indifference’ (1). In the subsequent section, Part I, ‘Colorado’, the poem pans in on a ‘thread of water / you can easily straddle, if only …’ (5). The details, so keenly observed, offer glimmers of intimacy, accessibility: ‘Water just covers my feet / the rocks of the streambed bloom / in orange and lilac’ (6); ‘Listen This too is where waters are born’ (11).
By the Kauffman House Museum, Grand Lake, place is further inhabited, this time by its human history as the reader is introduced to the ambiguous figure of Mary, on whose story ‘[t]he women at the Historical Society / can’t quite agree’. We read: ‘They agree that she needed sunshine / They speak as if she lived / in the almost-snow’ (12). Mary’s biography plummets, then, into violent tragedy:
Gun in hand she killed them
The children on the floor
she then turned despair upon herself
An imperfect shot
Four days till death (13)
Surfacing, the reader is gradually returned to picturesque sites and panoramas, the kind of which are seen elsewhere in the book, such as in Arizona, where ‘The Colorado River’ is ‘Now clay-coloured / now brilliant jade // now glassy, now dirty milk’ (81). Likewise in Nevada, the poet writes: ‘Now in postcards / all we see is blue-green / and terracotta, water’s glass // laid over more redrock’ (92). These glimpses of landscape are never simply pleasing pictorials, however, and the reader’s gaze is continually redirected as the poem zooms in and out, shifting in often unexpected directions.
In Part V, ‘California/Arizona, Border Water’, Middleton writes: ‘Somewhere here world unworlds / itself, weirds into desert planet’ (105). ‘Weirds’ might be a verb that drives moments of this collection, documenting as it does the sublime and the extreme. Yetthere are recognisable experiences glimpsed here also: the small talk of tourists, the gingham of restaurant tablecloths, drinking water carried in bottles and cooled in streambeds.
At ‘Adventure Park’ (according to the marginalia), we are offered an evocative, eerily beautiful portrait, beginning: ‘I swam in the famous pool at twilight // As steam / rose off / the weird aqua / bodies soaked into dusk’ (21). The poem’s speaker observes a couple seated on the pool’s steps, reading ‘his and hers pulp novels, never speaking / to each other’, both tuning out ‘the chatter of bikini-clad teens who discussed beauty / under the darkening sky’ (21).
The pairing of corporality and beauty, and of beauty and violence, is prevalent throughout the book. In the subsequent section, Middleton hears of a boy—presumably another teenager, or perhaps a younger child—who disappeared at ‘No Name creek’.Contemplating the time it took for his body to travel the river’s course (twelve days), the poet invites us to ‘Picture what remains—the washed up // dead arrive abraded; skinless; / smashed beyond reconstruction’ (22). On the following page—marked ‘erratum’ in the margin—Middleton notes: ‘Only later I learn that the body floated / four more days than I had heard / before the current offered up the leavings // thirty-five miles downstream’ (23).
In Utah, horses appear via film footage from John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), and the presence of those wonderfully uncanny animals heightens the intensity of the familiar and unfamiliar: ‘The opening reel shows us horses / easing their black and white bodies / into the waters, muddy and green’ (35). Bodies are continually entering and emerging (although not always) from the vast and often unfathomable body of water.
Elsewhere, human figures step in and out of the poem with ease. Children appear frequently, as do family groups and various couples. ‘Park Service volunteers’are dressed in ‘matching ranger-green’ (14). In Kremmling, a couple are ‘Two at odds’:
thin and tells me she can clack needles
with the fluency of puppet strings
He’s sturdy, votes right They disagree
but enlighten me on fire, on water
rights, on local names and on how
loneliness grows more elastic How
unchanged debates give comfort
In Part III we meet Joe, an asbestos worker on his way to Utah to see his daughter De Challey, ‘Like the canyon’ (73). ‘Holding apricots’, ‘He laces the story with water / and we drop / into my rental, drive miles away’ (73). Here, as elsewhere, the language doubles the water’s movements and shifts, its inherent fluidity.
Middleton’s presence as the poetry’s speaker, as an observer and collector of moments, is always light. Although the first-person ‘I’ appears frequently, the speaker’s subjectivity never encroaches upon the poetry, and the focus of the work is always elsewhere: ‘ – gathering, gathering –’ (8), to quote the poet. The poem is continually sieving through the water’s history, populated as it is by shattered bodies and ghosts, speculation, historical documentation, and the imaginations of others: filmmakers, explorers, locals and those visiting.
‘I have lived with the river much more in imagination than in actuality’, notes the poet at the end of the book. For readers of Ephemeral Waters too, the Colorado and its political and personal histories will live on as haunting, shifting presences. Middleton reintroduces the reader to the world, to the strange and familiar, in ways that stay on, dwelling in the imagination with a sense of something akin to the obsessive reverence described by Didion, decades ago.
Didion, Joan 2009 (1979), ‘Holy Water’, The White Album, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, pp. 59–66.
JO LANGDON is the author of a chapbook of poems, Snowline (Whitmore Press, 2012). She is currently a literary studies PhD candidate at Deakin University, Geelong, where she teaches in literature and professional & creative writing.