A Review of Lisa Dordal’s Water Lessons

Review by Michael Collins

March 2022, Black Lawrence Press

And here was someplace else:
Peace in the Impermanence in
Lisa Dordal’s Water Lessons

“Welcome,” the opening poem in Lisa Dordal’s second full-length poetry collection, Water Lessons, begins a meditation on the interplay between the surfaces of accepted social reality, represented here by the “Welcome Channel” hostess on her hotel tv, and the complexities of the speaker’s relationship with her deceased mother: 

      In the dream, she is reading
  from my book. She looks happy.

  Keep the doors and windows locked,
  the woman says. In five pages,

  my mother will be dead. First, the bottles
  hidden in bookcases throughout

  the house. Then, the heart wing. Locked,
  the woman says, at all times. My mother

  glances up. She is reading in the voice she used
  for Sounder and The Chronicles of Narnia.

  She reads as if the woman she is
  will not die; as if the woman who dies

  will not be her. As if she is not even there.
  Like when she learned about my attempts—

  aspirin, then the knife, my hand like Abraham’s
  over Isaac. Nice story, my mother said.

  We had learned to slip out of ourselves.
  To squeeze our consciousness through a hole

  the size of a dime. We were small inside
  our bodies. My body is sin, she told me once.

  Be alert, the woman says. As alert
  as you are at home. Nice story, she said.

Within the meditation, the circulations of the hostess’s superficial safety and the mother’s addiction, with its various forms of and needs for masking, each undo the other’s pretenses as they collide with the speaker’s own – notably explicitly stated – confrontations with despair. Her openness to her own lived truth grants permission for the other “nice stor[ies]” to loosen their grip over her – and our – perceptions of the world. Dordal reminds us how allowing such obfuscations to speak out their fallacies holds within it relative openings to release them, along with the generations of similar sufferings that “squeeze our consciousness through a hole / the size of a dime.” 

Dordal equates such meditative practices directly with her poetics in “Ars Poetica”: 

  My mother is saying something I still can’t hear.

  And I want to believe there is a door.

  Sometimes I dream I am being led through darkness.

  And I wouldn’t call her death “natural.”

  So many rooms were closed off before we knew they were there.

  And I was the one no one believed.

  And my father still insists her liver was fine.

  It was her heart, he says, just her heart

Syntactically, we notice the pattern of compound sentences intentionally fragmented by end-stopped lines. There is a subtle pathos presented by disjointing these sentences; however, these same choices, in conjunction with the one-line stanzas, also give the poem a steady, deliberate feel, as if the speaker holds each truth within consciousness for a reflective moment, allowing them space to complicate one another without the need for singular resolution. This listening to thoughts and memories allows the spoken and unspoken to coexist, the “closed off” rooms to enter awareness, certainly a worthy art of poetry. 

Associative lyrics such as “Sheltering in Place” branch out further from the more meditative poems, allowing inspirations from present relationships to guide intrapsychic possibilities:

  A friend reminded me recently of joy—
  my joy. My laugh, infectious, she said. She’s remembering

  the games we played in seventh grade.
  Dialing random numbers from the phone book—

  Tell me a story, we’d say to whoever answered. I need stories
  to survive. The daughter I don’t have making angels

  in a foot of new snow. Or sometimes angles
  because the confusion delights her—lying down

  once, then again, stretched out against her own
  otherness. My niece, at three, is afraid of angels.

  Please, Mommy, not the angels, she says
  whenever her mother sings Angels watching over me,

  my Lord. She doesn’t like the idea of being watched
  by something she can’t see. There’s a kind of spider

  that sees as well as a cat. We saw one—my wife and I—
  pacing on the railing of our front porch. It stared at us,

  we stared back. Its body, the shape of a tiny gorilla.
  Darwin said the eye gave him a cold shudder. I want a story

  that ends in joy. I want to enter a house in which every window is open—
  it’s just beginning to rain and there’s my mother

  hurrying to shut each one. Moving through the house
  with the urgency of a bird, trapped inside. One pane,

  then another. Only, she isn’t trying to leave.
  She wants to stay.

In contrast to the truth-telling emphasis elsewhere, here we have almost exclusively fictions. The primary “facts” of the poem are all personal relationships, which is further emphasized in the volta: “I want a story /that ends in joy.” The line break disrupts the apparent sentiment; however, perhaps tutored by the speaker’s engaged and compassionate relationships in the external world, just such a story actually follows in the speaker’s imagining of her mother wanting “to stay,” finding a way to cohabitate within her consciousness. 

This flexible foundation supports a deeper acceptance of contingency and uncertainty “that might be god, or might be grief” (“Broken Arm”). This assent is based neither on blind trust in the unknown nor excusing grief by generating meanings for it, but rather a continual peacemaking with impermanence itself, as in this description of her last encounter with her mother in “The Last Time”:

      She looked older

  than her age, but beautiful.
  And luminous. Something in her

  already beginning to change. A seed,
  buried in the ground, sensing the sun’s

  fuller light. She smiled, said hello.
  Or maybe I was the seed, she the light.

  I’m here, she said. And here was someplace else. 

The penultimate line speculates in metaphors, allowing us to see the speaker shifting them in consciousness, the observance of the mind’s attempt to find an impossible comprehension replacing the need to state one. The final line deepens its acceptance of the eventualities associated with this insubstantiality: Two direct, factual statements disclose a perceptible reality of transitioning, the implications of which cannot be quantified, mitigated, or moralized. 

However, this concurrent awareness of life’s ephemerality and the mind’s own processes of working with it is linked to the continual newness of the actively witnessed consciousness, implied in “Grief”:

  And there is no such thing
  as a half-life for grief.

  Even oceans contain waterfalls
  and your mother is inside

  everything that you write—
  sometimes as melody,

  sometimes as mountain
  or bone. Every time

  you hear the word, you become
  something else. 

The second person address both the reader and the observed self, importantly embodying the multidirectional nature of consciousness observing consciousness. These lines also invoke as interdependent the practices of mental flexibility and creativity as ongoing responses to life’s inherent instability, the ongoing autobiographical and world-building process in these fine poems:

      I’m happier than this poem says I am.
  And also sadder. Maybe this will be enough: at ninety,

  walking through snow, holding what isn’t there
  until what isn’t there calls my name. 

“Ars Poetica” and “Sheltering in Place” are reprinted in full
with permission from Black Lawrence Press, Copyright © 2022

Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances, which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, New York.

Lisa Dordal holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Fine Arts (in poetry), both from Vanderbilt University, and teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt. She is the author of Mosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, Water Lessons (April 2022), and Next Time You Come Home (forthcoming 2023), all from Black Lawrence Press. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in The SunNarrativeImage, The New Ohio ReviewBest New Poets, Greensboro ReviewRHINO, Ninth Letter, and CALYX. Her website is lisadordal.com.

Water Lessons, Black Lawrence Press