As half-women, the mythical mermaids that swim and roll through the first third of Laura Madeline Wiseman’s Drink (BlazeVOX, 2015), call up the murky waters of teenage life. They are young women straddling two worlds, caught in the dreamy underwater quality of youth while looking forward to womanhood. The mermaids are “mercurial,” always on the verge of transformation in the same way teenagers exist in a constant state of flux, almost daily changing into new versions of themselves. They “change with the stories that change us” (“First Story”) and are capable of “unzipping the long, silky skirt of their tail” to step out into womanhood only to return to their tail and the sea (“The Switch”).
The mermaids swim both in the shifting ocean and in a chlorine-thick high school pool with old pop songs playing in the background, while other mermaids sit on the bleachers, reading or taking notes (“Part IV. The Best Years of Your Life”). Although the mermaids are always described in plural, and thus as part of a community, they are the outsiders, the girls watching real life happen from a distance, from the safety of the waves. This brings with it loneliness and fatalism as they “examine the city from the vantage of tide spills and swells,” unable to do anything more than “rub their face when they see the men who shudder, unshaven, sleeping in city parks, or when they see the girl alone on corners in the red of glooming” (“Unfathomable View”).
In the third section, the images of mermaids gives way to the world of land-locked sisters caught in a transient existence by an alcoholic mother. Here, the poetic form — which up until this point has been the prose poem — shifts to free verse. Accustomed to the solid weightiness of the prose poem form in the previous section, the effect of the sudden switch is startling and powerful, the broken lines of the free verse reflecting the raw jagged hurt of these young women.
At first glance, the third section seems a departure from the mermaids in the previous sections, with the images of swimming and water giving way to burnings. The sisters are faced with a mother whose smoking turns into a “burning haze / layering the apartment” (“Substances”) and who gathers up her daughters’ diaries and written words and sets them aflame in the yard (“Crazy Cleaning”). This is a world dust and decay and loss, filled with objects of questionable value and a constant need for more — stuff, food, love.
However, these young women are connected to mermaids through their dreaming and their art, drawing mermaids with sharpies on their skin “like the girls they wanted to be, / like the girls they should have been” (“Mai-Tai Tuesday”). As with the mermaids in the previous sections, the sisters also speak in the collective, describing themselves as “we”. Although this is an isolated collective, the narrators separated from their peers by their constant transience and poverty, from their mother by her alcoholic obsessions, and from their sister (referred to as “our sister”), who once aided their mother and is shocked when she finds “the charred remains / of her teenage journaling” and the contents of her bedroom “strewn, / sheets yanked, closest emptied, drawers removed” due to their mother’s searching and destruction (“Reading Our Sister’s Diary”). has sided with their mother and who commits suicide) as “our sister”. And as with the mermaids, the girls seek transformation, an escape from their chaotic youth. The narrators achieve this through flight from their home and their sister through suicide. The emptiness left in the wake of her suicide is beautifully expressed in the silence and seeming ambivalence of the mother, who scrubs at the message left on the wall without making a sound (“Aubade”).
When the poems return to the prose poem form in the fourth section it is with a renewed sense of emotional solidity. The ragged hurt of the teenaged sisters gives way to the smoother surface of adulthood. As the narrator describes the pleasant frustrations of her lover’s obsession with collecting drift bottles found on the sea shore, she uses for the first time the singular “I”, revealing a sister who has survived her transformation from youth and come into her own as a grown woman. Love and charm and forgiveness fill these poems, a sweet relief from the dangers that befell her in her youth. Her lover collects bottles by the dozens, filling shelves with them where they cluster and get in the way. She finds herself annoyed and bemused, “wondering why everyone I’ve ever loved, loves bottles — even the benign ones” (“Another Amateur Bottleer”). The bottles, each one “like Pandora’s jeweled jar, a black box, a digital recorder recording our talk, a secret we’ve promised not to tell” (“The First Bottle”), are capsules of moments and memories, both new and more gentle ones and those from the past that no longer have the same ability to harm her. When at last she is able to say to herself, “I am a new person,” she can finally open her hands and reveal that they are “empty finally, like bottles launched, for good,” having released the past and its heavy hurts (“Running from the Drink”).
The final section of Drink is a single poem, “On Privacy,” which describes the people who are “allowed to be thoughtless” with the privilege of comfort, people able to read their newspaper and play with their tablet or phone in peace. In a way, this is the most heartbreaking poem in the collection when taken in context of all the poems that have come before it. When Wiseman writes, “Most may have something, a bright light, a hope, something small enough to fit in a hand, slide into a pocket,” it is impossible not to think of the others, the ones whose lives are marked by loss, who are declined this “small island of happiness.”
Note: This review was first published in Rhizomatic Ideas, a now closed blog of Zoetic Press.