Review by Stephanie Dickinson
Chocolate Waters, the “unofficial Poet Laurette of Hell’s Kitchen,” has woven together poetry, prose, and photography to create a compelling memoir that commands our interest not only by the poet’s rich personal story, but by her historical perspective. In a prose time capsule we discover the young woman, who will become one of the founders of the iconic Big Mama Rag, arriving in Denver with 28 cents in her pocket. One of the first out lesbian poets to publish during the second wave of feminism, Waters has led a kaleidoscopic existence redolent with atmosphere and an effervescence that the author photo on the back cover exhibits. Celebrated for her light touch even as she explores the dark underside, Waters delves into the many selves she’s lived in her journey on planet Earth. Divided into sections that feel like entrances between rooms, lovers flow into dead animals and familial trauma.
There’s enough here for the tawdry-minded, but what comes through is an awareness and a tenderness, a generosity both for the other and the self. Radiating a wise-woman warmth, the writer speaks directly and intimately to the reader. Patti Smith in Just Kids achieved a purity of voice, revelatory of herself and the time in which she lived, and Muddying the Holy Waters accomplishes a similar purity without braggadocio, full of wry wit and astute perception.
The poems in each section should be read sequentially as they build upon each other and heighten our understanding. We are given section titles and it’s no surprise that behind the signpost “Impossible” the collection’s first two poems, both appealing to a higher nature, seem unattainable. “Dead in the Waters” is a marvel that reads like a prayer. Is this the poet calling out to the void or a play on her surname? An invocation, an exhortation to God, to the creative spirt, or to the self? The poem has a sacred tenor, a missive to the light to make its presence felt that crescendos in an unforgettable last line.
Don’t destroy the world with your absence.
Let your truthful voice speak, heal.
Let yourself love, whatever that means.
Set this anguished world on fire.
We learn in the opening pages that “In grade school they called me Choc-o-lotta Weirdo” and overhear the taunts of “Hey girl your pimples are purple.” What begins as a taunt is later claimed by the poet as her nom de guerre, the nonconformist arming herself to do battle with the forces of convention and cisgender. Like the words dyke and queer that have been transformed. While the poet’s childhood was a nomadic one, the cities and states changing like the seasons, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, seems where the wandering stopped, roots were put down, and the familial drama unfolded.
A girl-child of the post-WWII baby boom and the first born of Emory and Pauline, Waters is from the beginning an outsider, her nonconformist nature on display. Hers was a military family and she’d attended 13 schools before the sixth grade. In college she discovers girls, and they notice her, a “sexily brooding, smart smart-ass.” To her college girlfriend she writes the first of many love poems.
It’s second-wave feminism, and Waters is in the vanguard, meeting superb, exciting women, and as she tells us, trying to sleep with all of them. The wild Denver outlaw who had been championed by Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem was ignored when she moved to New York City.
IMPOSSIBLE 1 AND 2
The poet’s ardent heart addresses the “you” like the Russian poets Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, in which the object of desire remains out of reach, unable or unwilling to reciprocate the passion. In “First Rush,” the poet is longing to ingest you/whole or/bit by bit. An all-consuming desire and therein lies the chasm between the longed-for scenario evoked in “Fantasy” with its:
sweet chill of fall
peeping thru the windows
big comfy bed
i snuggle into you
and “Her Response”—
i can’t go there
i can’t go there with you
The two poems appear on facing pages, coupled, and if the poet addresses the you with yearning in the love poems, she speaks to the you comically in anger too. The arc of these love poems takes the reader from adoration to irreverent anger and gifts us with the poignant “Tender Self Compassion” in which the poet finds herself alone, solo and sobbing, while trying to wrap her arms around herself.
There’s no one else
who can hug me like I can
so awkward tho
In the “Housefly Lover,” we bite into a nougat of delight, one in which Chocolate Waters prepares us for another love, not between two people, but between two beings, a person and an animal, whether bird, fowl, or mammal, and revealing to us the fly, as suitor, one persistent in its intensions:
So here you are
humming and bustling around my head
trying to kiss the back of my neck, my lips
sallying back & forth across my naked leg
No word could be more aptly chosen than “sallying,” which makes me smile whenever I read it, but we can expect no less from a Spelling Bee Champion.
I was drawn to the “Dead Animals” sequence where the connection between the poet’s relationships/their lack of staying power and the loss of beloved animals seems especially strong. Not only brave and deeply moving, but the poems also highlight the inattention of human caretakers. We must rely on Waters’ humor to ease us through the pathos of each loss. Not only does the author eulogize the collie Lad, asleep under the old Studebaker/when mom ran over him, but the bright-feathered duck cooked for supper, and Chickie, a rescued chicken, sold for someone’s dinner, and Goldie, the parakeet, whose alighting delighted, also sold, and Prince, the Doberman Pinscher, who lay on the poet’s bed at night, and was put down the day he nipped at her mother’s fur coat. Waters’ parents are as reckless with animals in their care as they are of their children.
Scruff-o the Wonder Cat is another casualty of neglect. While staying with the poet’s mother, Scruff-o, attacked and wounded by a dog, is not taken to a vet and dies alone in the basement. No surprises that the burnished jewel of the Dead Animal’s section is the elegiac “Transformation (on the departure of Scruff-o the Wonder Cat).”
My grief spills out upon the earth
as endless as the journey of the Fool
I found something King Lear(ish) in those lines and the poem is a tour de force of sophistication and simplicity.
Of all the deaths that I’ve been through
since landing in New York with just a suitcase
and my Scruff-o cat beside me
No single one has broken my determination
to become my best of selves,
like Scruff-o’s death has cracked my walking stick in two.
It is here among the innocent animals, the lament for gone lovers, and the unresolved family conflicts intersect. Here love is given, and love returned without the caveats, the promises, the withholding, and the blaming. It throws the baggage of lovers and family into stark relief. The section ends with a blistering parental rebuke.
I’D RATHER BE A TOAD
It is always the familial traumas where we come to wrack and ruin, and it is in these last sequences we learn the particulars of the blessing and curses of Mount Joy. The name Mount Joy is a tribute to irony where the family assumed their battle stations. Her father, a poor boy from Statesboro, Georgia, and her mother from tiny Florin, Pennsylvania and the next to last of 15 children, should never have met. Emory and Pauline, two good looking people who hated each other. Waters once questioned her mother as to how long before she knew she’d made a mistake in marrying him. “2 weeks,” her mother replied, and then stays half a century with her mistake.
The children are torn between loyalty to one parent or another, and Waters, enamored of her father, sides with him even knowing about his extramarital affairs and his vile treatment of her mother.
you were the man in my life
no boy could match you
I adored you
when I came out as a lesbian
I couldn’t tell you
we never spoke of it
we watched rush limbaugh instead
after you died I learned you’d read
all my dykey books
Her father is dying, and Waters tells us she knelt in the hospital’s waiting room sobbing and praying to the God she no longer believed in. And yet she too wanted to best him, and names him the philandering you and tells us of the list of the women she’d slept with and how her list was much longer than his.
it made me more than equal
it made me formidable
it made me better
In Muddying the Holy Waters readers are treated to the fullness of an idiosyncratic and fascinating life. Waters the brilliant, pissed-off melancholic memoirist/poet has captured the rapidly vanishing heteronormative past. A 21st century must-read.
Stephanie Dickinson lives in New York City with the poet Rob Cook and their senior feline, Vallejo. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Other books include Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg (New Michigan Press), and Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian Arts Press). Blue Swan/Black Swan: The Trakl Diaries won the 2020 Bitter Oleander Press book prize. Her Razor Wire Wilderness, a true crime memoir, based on her correspondence with inmates at the notorious Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women is out from Kallisto Gaia Press.