Water Lessons, by Lisa Dordal, (Black Lawrence Press, 2021)
Review by Risa Denenberg
Three years ago, I wrote a review of Lisa Dordal’s first poetry collection, Mosaic of the Dark. In that review I wrote, “The narrative arc in Mosaic of the Dark follows ‘girl transformed into woman.’” And knowing that Dordal has both Masters of Divinity and Masters of Fine Arts degrees, I added, “Dordal, in her acquired wisdom, has produced a book of poetry that transcends a woman’s story to become a spiritual awakening.”
In her recently released collection, Water Lessons, Dordal builds on Mosaic of the Dark, while expanding and deepening both the narrative and the spiritual quest. The narrative arc is not linear, it curves in and out of the past and the present. It is a layered reappraisal of what it has meant to be a daughter.
In the title poem, Dordal reports that her “mother loved the beach at 57th Street / where she’d stand at the water’s edge, / her head bent to a magazine. / I never saw her swim.” If there is an irrepressible image in the book, it is of this mother, who changes her hairstyle every week, and hides bottles “in bookcases throughout // the house.” We see the mother clearly in the poem, “My Mother Arriving”: “She’s wearing cat-eye sunglasses, / a navy blue pantsuit, and a pewter peace necklace.” Later in the title poem is this mystical stanza:
Inside the Titanic,
there is a glass of water
still sitting on a bureau—
the strange physics
that allowed drowning,
This is the sort of slyly breathtaking extended metaphor that Dordal is capable of. A mother who drinks herself to death without skipping a single week at the hairdresser. In an elegy to her mother, in the poem “Grief,” she says:
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
What a lovely way to hold grief—it changes, but never goes away. Dordal holds a Master’s of Divinity. I imagine that words of comfort come readily to her.
In “Ars Poetica,” Dordal resists covering over the truth of the mother’s alcoholism, saying “I wouldn’t call her death “natural,” while her father persists in telling a lie: “And my father still insists her liver was fine.’”
The father has a supporting role in Water Lessons, in the sense of being a secondary character, certainly not a consolation. We learn later that he has some dementia, and even though it is a tiny bit funny, these lines are painful for me to read: “Now, when my father says: Your mother and I, / he gestures towards his new wife.”
The mid-section of poems, “Postcards from the 70’s” reverts back to Dordal’s childhood, growing up with liberal parents in what appears to have been an upper middle-class home and attending public schools in Chicago. Among recalled episodes (the naivety of agreeing to pose for a neighbor; driving her boyfriend’s yellow station wagon: being happy whenever it snowed) are memories from the distance of maturity in which she acknowledges the casual racism she participated in (“We were good people. / The good kind of white”), and offers a mea culpa in hindsight.
The book’s penultimate poem, “The Life I Live,” is an aching summation of sorrow and regret, mingled with Dordal’s characteristic equanimity. There is sorrow for what she has lost and musing over what she never had—a daughter.
My daughter, neither born nor conceived,
Splits my life in two directions. I like my life,
who I’ve become and who I love. Still my mind
bears a creek deep enough for swimming,
children’s shoes piling up by the back door.
When Dordal says, “I like my life, / who I’ve become and who I love,” she is speaking as a lesbian. As an older lesbian who lost custody of my son in the seventies, I’ve experienced the sorrow of lesbians I know who fought custody battles or never had children. It portends a tracing of loneliness as we age. She says, “Sometimes I imagine myself at ninety / forever cold, cradling a doll—my mind // as demented as my father’s is now.” The poem ends in this vulnerable reflection:
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.
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. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Mosaic of the Dark, was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets, New Ohio Review, The Sun, Narrative, RHINO, Ninth Letter, CALYX, The Greensboro Review, and Vinyl Poetry.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, Reviews Editor at River Mouth Review, and curator at The Poetry Café. Her chapbook, POSTHUMAN, was the finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook contest.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.