Ken Rumble

House of Poured-Out Waters

Jane Mead
University of Illinois Press / April 2001
$14.95 / 114 pages / ISBN 0-252-06944-7

Violence in action movies is typically set against a similarly violent background of flashes, smoke, and explosions with accompanying grunts and yells. This background violence mediates the human and physical violence that we watch unfold; we witness violence in an ultraviolent, and therefore alien, world. In House of Poured-Out Waters, Jane Mead's latest collection of poems, violence—both physical and mental—is taken out of the fantastical, alien world of action movies and brought chillingly, quietly into a world that is much like the one we move through daily. We watch the narrator of these poems reexamine memories of violence and—like the swallow in the collection's first poem, "To Break the Spell Is to Invite Chaos into the Universe"—make a home from the mud and feathers.

In many of these poems, the memories the speaker revisits are approached through pastoral images or rivers and trees. Mead uses a narrative about the collapse of a tree, in "But What If, As Is," to question how we are brought into being. She asks, "what if we really / aren't the center of / our spectacularly uncentered // universe but, rather, the tree, / the sound of it falling is what calls us forth." As the narrator waits for the tree to fall, she imagines her life erased, and as she imagines the tree falling, the crack of the trunk becomes the memory of a report from a .22:

and it takes me
back to the guns of my childhood—

and what if I want that to count,
that little crack, so that the memory
now, and therefore the childhood,
are called with me into existence,

meaning back into existence

As the trauma of the tree falling gives existence to people in general, the trauma associated with the memory of the guns gives the narrator a focal point for her existence. The narrator accepts these painful memories and uses them as proof of her permanence.

Mead's longer pieces—such as "Several Scenes in Search of the Same Explosion," "House of Poured-Out Waters," and "The Prairie as Valid Provider"—allow her to create a nebula of repeating words and images that spark with collisions. In "House of Poured-Out Waters" the narrator urgently tries to give the reader some understanding of the suffering of victims of child abuse, while at the same time seeking to heal her own pain. Healing for the narrator, however, is not a process of forgetting as much as it is a process of remembering, repeating, and passing on. She writes, "I may be landing, / I may be taking off— / all I want is to / give you something // before it happens, something / a person could live by." The narrator's experiences spin in and out among several other stories of abuse, creating a picture of pervasive suffering and trauma. While the healing process is a violent catharsis, the narrator does not ennoble this suffering. The title of the poem is a translation of Bethesda—the pool where Jesus healed a man who had been sick for 38 years. Ultimately in this poem, however, there is no miracle cure. The speaker realizes "you do not destroy the ones / you hate, you only change them // into something you can do / without, something you think / you can do without." As in "But What If, As Is," the suffering and pain the narrator examines are an inseparable part of her identity. In the end, she returns to the story of abuse that begins the poem and says of the victim "I / hand him back now, and I // take him with me."

The shapes of these poems complement Mead's spare, fragmented style. Generally, she follows a regular stanza pattern, often triplets and quatrains. She manipulates the line breaks against these traditionally lyric forms, however. In "The Animal Messenger," she writes

of a chosen landscape,
purples and greens against
the tans and grays of fall

These short lines and lengthy sentences create a breathless pace that amplifies the urgency of her subject.

The redemption found in House of Poured-Out Waters is not that of erasure. The damage and pain of abuse are not pushed into a closet in these poems. Instead, Mead transforms the violence into healing, identity, and strength. The narrator of these poems is, as Mead writes, healed "not with water / only, but with the water / and with the blood." These are the poems of someone who has not just survived, but someone who feels impelled to thrive.

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