Skin of Water: Selected Poems (Aria, 2009) gathers 20 of Marjorie Evasco’s poems from her first two books, Dreamweavers (Editorial and Media Resources Corporation, 1987) and Ochre Tones (Salimbayan, 1999). Moreover, a number of poems have been previously published in journals—“Parisian Life,” “Bodies of Gold,” and “Sic Transit Mundi” in High Chair, for instance, and “Solsequiem” in Softblow—but have yet to appear in a single collection. Each of the poems is translated into Spanish; the translations, though, are beyond the pale of this review.
Skin of Water is preoccupied with the sensuality of the body and of the natural world, as well as the ways in which art and history are rendered using poetry; these concerns are articulated using language that privileges restraint over verbosity, delicacy over directness, containment over excess. The confluence of the natural and the sensual is seen, for example, in “Invitation,” where the persona—a fish “snagged … / [f]rom the deep”—apostrophises the hook that has “cut [it] open.” Despite the fish’s capture—and the awareness that it will end up as part of the “feast on the Sultan’s table”—the poem nevertheless refuses to “speak of flesh,” opting instead to “offer [the hook] only / [t]hat bluer ocean / [w]here waves surge higher.” The poems in Skin of Water first aim to ground the reader in the physical and natural world, then take him/her to an area higher than waves and beyond the blue, using a method of elevation that is typified, paradoxically, by restraint and subtlety.
To take another instance: in “Dancing a Spell,” the persona tells her addressee that “[s]ilence is our breath and base for music,” and that her “song will grow limbs” and “[w]eave the oldest story with nimble feet.” Just the same, the poem claims that the persona and addressee do not let the listening ones “know / [w]e know the spellbinding name / [o]f the one we worship.” The restraint in language used by Dr. Evasco, in this case, forces the reader to consider for him/herself the name of that “spellbinding” one, to ascertain how the speaker and addressee seem to know it, as well as to come to terms with the length of time it takes—“[t]en sacred years to learn one gesture / [o]f the wind’s caress on the skin of water”—to acquire such knowledge. Moreover, the image of the wind caressing the water illustrates Dr. Evasco’s propensity to point toward the sacred while at the same time maintaining ties with the sensual and the natural; her aesthetic remains attentive to changes in hue and shade, as well as shifts in tone and pitch. In Skin of Water, the poems are in shades of “sienna and cyan, cyan and cerulean,” and the poems’ personae “shap[e] a small blue universe” with their hands even if the milieu threatens to “completely shatter” (“Solsequiem”).
Seen in this light, the image of the skin of water suggests the notion of a contact zone: an area where distinctions—between the body and nature, for instance, or the sensual and the sacred, as well as silence and speech—are not just maintained but also potentially interrogated. Although the categories in Skin of Water tend to blur into each other—the poet Myrna Peña-Reyes, who reviewed the book in 2010, points out that Dr. Evasco moves “back and forth between her perceptions of a material, tangible world reality and of a metaphorical reality of higher consciousness”—these “shifts” are done, for Ms. Peña-Reyes, “constantly and seamlessly.” Hence, the seamlessness between physical and metaphysical and the continuity between materiality and insight—an emphasis on joinery, not alterity—result in poems that are consistent, steady, foot-sure, and well-crafted: characteristics readers have come to expect in Dr. Evasco’s works. Even if, as indicated in “Is It the Kingfisher?” the “boundary between us” is seemingly imperceptible and “hairbreadth,” the border zones are as “transient as the air [and] permeable to the blue / [o]f tropic and mountain gentian.”
This disposition in Skin of Water towards continuity may be demonstrated by a number of ekphrastic poems—works that may be characterised as inhabiting the contact zone between the textual and the visual. In these poems—“Bodies of Gold,” “Parisian Life,” and “La Condition Humaine”—Dr. Evasco’s hand is light and deft, regardless of the trouble intimated by the subject. In “La Condition Humaine,” the landscape—regardless of whether it is viewed from “inside / [a]nd outside the rooms of love”—is “not always seamless.” Be that as it may, the lovers seem to understand their plight. Despite their seeming fixity—“dustmotes … already trapped / [i]n the light of images”—they are nevertheless in a state
of uncertainty and flux: they realize that “[i]n no time they shall each be elsewhere.” This conflict between undecidability and entrapment, though, is rendered deliberately and even-handedly; the linebreaks, for instance, suggest not ruptures of thought and breath, but suspension and—in the next line—resumption: “like this morning” that seems to linger even though it has “[v]anished fast into another day.”
On the one hand, there are poems where the single-mindedness of craft disappoints. The seamlessness of the voice in “Sic Transit Mundi”—where Dr. Evasco endeavours, using the lyric voice, to articulate historical concerns—has a deflating effect. In the poem, the speaker aims to portray to the addressee (ostensibly National Artist of the Philippines Franz Arcellana, identified at the end of the poem) a horrible incident in the town of Balicasag. The poem aims to “translat[e] a story of fire / razing a whole village to the ground / when the revolution was fought.” The poem proceeds to describe how “mothers weaving pandan mats / pause to tell the story” of the atrocity:
The churchbells rang mad at dawn.
Someone had set fire to the orchard
of Padre Domingo del Valle;
by noon even the grasshoppers
had turned to ashes. (Italics in original)
The poem concludes with the persona wanting to let her addressee apprehend the experience, now translated into details pertaining to taste: the persona “want[s] the edges of your tongue to water / from the hint of acid in the air[.]” My reservation with the aesthetic strategy used in this poem pertains to how, despite the shift in perspective, the tone remains consistent. First, even if the point of view of the destruction of Balicasag is told from the perspective of the mothers, there does not seem to be any tonal shift: even if there is an attempt at alterity—a difference as regards point of view between the storytellers (the mothers who pause to tell the story) and the persona—the tone nevertheless remains uniform. Hence, when in the key moments of the poem, the language takes a turn to synesthesia, the imposition of the uniform tone undercuts the endeavour to be various, the heterogeneity of the sensual appearing heavy handed and forced: “the tongue mapped by many colors,” and “the roof / of the mouth” being likened to “the dome of a world / circumscribed by consonants.” This has a deflating effect, especially since the poem aims to recuperate and foreground a dark chapter in the locality’s history. In this case, the material appears to exert a pressure on the poem to which the aesthetic resources of the lyric fail to respond: when tonal unity is imposed on the heterogenous and heavy materials of history, the result seems to be flatness.
This is not to say that socially-concerned lyric poems in Skin of Water do not pass muster. In “To a Child Contortionist,” for instance, the “featherslip / [o]f a girl” does her performance “[o]n two chairs atop a table,” her body folded and “[w]illed to a single point / [o]f survival.” The persona—who observes the girl—is cognizant of the dangers posed by the act: a situation “[w]here downs are ups, / [n]either right nor real.” Hence, the social critique is expressed in terms of physical and moral vertigo: the accomplishment of the child is in making it appear that such an act is easy, her movements typified by “sequined litheness”; for the persona, upon realising that the child does this “[a]t Pistang Pilipino every night,” the show is deplorable precisely because it is “[n]either right nor real.” In this case, the poem’s tone is apt for the material: the precision of the language corresponding to the subtlety—however precarious—of the subject’s movements. In “To a Child Contortionist,” lyricism is repurposed for social critique, an approach shared by poems such as Simeon Dumdum, Jr.’s “The Washerwomen” and Myrna Peña-Reyes’s “Loading.”
In the main, in Skin of Water, the surfaces are polished, the line cuts are delicate, the seams do not show, the voice is measured, calm, and often in place. However, it is these properties which contribute to the weakness of certain examples such as “Sic Transit Mundi”: the impulse to unify appears to dissipate the poem. To be sure, the well-wrought lyric may be used to depict not just states of interiority and spirituality, but also matters pertaining to art and history. However, the tendency for tidiness may muffle incipient multiplicities of voices and temporalities. “Sonnet O, Solving for X” offers a way to think through this difficulty: “It may be an error,” says the persona, “to propose / Music and Poetry the only way / [t]o bring differentials to some / [c]oncordance.” Skin of Water, a gathering of Dr. Evasco’s best work over the past two decades, provides ample demonstration of her mastery of bringing differentials into concordance. But as she says, the current aesthetic approaches offered by the lyric poem—which is itself, by the way, a confluence of music and poetry—may no longer be sufficient in regarding alterities in form and materials. The recognition that an approach typified by single-mindedness as well as an aesthetic characterised by singularity are not “the only way[s]” may very well open up future prospects for Dr. Evasco’s handling of the lyric poem.