The Poetics of Healing: a Review of Water-Rites by Ann E. Michael
In her recently published book, Healing Spaces: the Science of Place and Well-Being, Esther M. Sternberg asserts that there comes a “point when the destructive forces of illness give way to healing… it is a turning-point–a turning of your mind’s awareness from a focus on your inner self to a focus on the outer world.” She, then, posits the following questions: “Can the spaces around us help us to heal? Can we design places so as to enhance their healing properties?”
It is profitable to view Ann E. Michael’s Water-Rites, her first full-length collection of poetry, within the context of Steinberg’s inquiry. While the book abounds with the poet’s stunning sensuous imagery, the underlying current that moves the poems along is one of loss; most emphatically the death of an irreplaceable friend and confidant, David Dunn. Although the denser concentration of elegiac poems about him resides in “How Distant the Swan,” the second section of the book, the ramifications of Dunn’s passing are in evidence throughout the entire collection. Michael’s poetry might well be perceived as a series of “designed places” in which she, as reluctant survivor, can work to diffuse the “destructive force” of her grief in the visually captivating milieu of acres of farmland and, thus, initiate the long healing process. Healing, however, does not come readily, for it demands that the poet not only confront her sorrow but her guilt as well. “Knew I should call./Last week of school./ Busy. All I heard was complaint/in your voice… Meant to call; did not./There’s no poetry in any description/of too late.” One poem, in the form of a poetic letter, reaches out to the deceased, himself, for instructions on how to navigate the emotional landscape:
August was a withered skin, a locust shell, rattler’s cloak.
In late September, hurricanes: flood ran across macadam-hard fields,
tree limbs groaned your name, flung themselves down, and wept…
How shall I hold me up without you? Who will take my hand,
lead me through grief and into a year of average rainfall,
splendid fruit? I await your answer, with love…
But of course the poet’s old confidant can no longer respond to such queries because he exists now only in the realm of memory, and the speaker must finally acknowledge that “I’ve wakened/to what is mine, the sweet, the painful,/my tongue dry with losses; I know/exactly where I am.” This knowledge is prerequisite to any healing process that can be initiated and is absolutely necessary for any acceptance of human mortality. Michael asks in “Burials” if she should teach her children “to understand the truth of maggots,/which consume equally/the treasured and the stray.” That is the difficult truth of the place in which we all must dwell, and I’m reminded of a remark from Sternberg that “our sense of place can come from something as small as a drop of morning dew on a blade of grass [or] the smell of wet earth after a rain.” Or, as the poet would have it, the humble work of maggots that “fulfill their contract with the earth,/never seeking recognition/or time, more time.”
Again and again, it’s the external world that is the paradigm, here, the instructive environment in which Michael learns to construct her interior healing spaces. Sternberg’s book concludes with the following commentary:
We can create for ourselves a place of healing—a tiny island—wherever we find ourselves in this world, at any moment in the interstices of our busy lives. It is really in ourselves, in our emotions and our memories, that we can each find our healing space.
In Water-Rites the poet uses her emotions and memories to create a place of healing in which the wounded psyche can find solace and rejuvenation. Michael’s obsession with water, both physical and metaphorical, suggests her desire for a baptismal state of temporal and spiritual grace, where grief can be diminished—if not alleviated—by knowledge and acceptance of death as the final stage in human existence. How courageously and beautifully she ends the collection with the celebratory “Green Going Gold.”
On a day like this,
I am glad not to be immortal…
I am glad to be among the fleeting…
I embrace myself: the broken pod,
the migratory bird, green going gold…
On a day such as this,
why not live to change?
I sprout, I face the sun,
I reach, and die.
And in the interim teaches us how to renew ourselves, redeem our losses, despite the inevitability of death and dissolution. It is precisely with this knowledge of the inevitable that Michael must undertake her painful but healing art.
reviewed by Alfred Encarnacion, New Jersey