Denton Loving, editor of the fourth volume in Motes Books’s Motif anthology series, Seeking Its Own Level: An Anthology of Writings about Water, begins his introduction with stories of water affecting our everyday lives. This is our reality, our living narrative: contamination of a river in West Virginia; frozen pipes and extreme cold in Southern Appalachia; lack of access to clean water globally; and our reluctance to regard water as a finite natural resource. Then Loving gets to the real heart of the matter––at least from a literary perspective––stating why, beyond its being so crucial to our livelihoods, we should bother writing about water, why we should bother compiling stories and poems in which water plays a central role. “Water is such an elemental factor of human consciousness that it pervades nearly every aspect of our being at both literal and figurative levels,” he writes. Not to mention, water is always changing form, character, and direction, always refracting light, always fashioning and dissolving rainbows: it makes good sense to approach it from as many angles as possible.
Seeking Its Own Level presents the works of some of our most accomplished North American writers (Margaret Atwood, Jill McCorkle, Roxane Gay, Maurice Manning, and Bret Anthony-Johnson, to name a few), alongside the works of many talented newcomers. What I appreciate most about Loving’s selection is its adherence to sincerity above all else. Water is elemental; it’s the very thing that makes life on this planet possible. In matters of the pen and otherwise, it demands honesty. A pipe exploding in the frigid darkness of a February night, that kind of honesty. It demands an unwavering hand, an unwavering eye. The authors featured in this collection look at water straight on. They touch it, sniff it, dive right in, or else stand looking on from afar, exploring their fear. There are none of those distancing gestures we see so often in new writing these days: cynical irony, intellectualizing rants, satire, or other efforts on the authors’ parts to bypass the emotional core of a text. No, the authors featured in Seeking Its Own Level––if occasionally straying here and there into sentimentality or cliché––take water too seriously not to be brave about it. Perhaps if we all took water––and the earth in general––this seriously, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the current climate position we’re in today.
My favorite pieces were the ones that took a big spoon to the soupy mystery and set it a-swirl. In Roxane Gay’s story “The Weight of Water,” Bianca lives with an active rain cloud above her all the time, and not just rain, but all of the effects of rain––rot, decay, bad smells and strange growths. And yet through Gay’s elegant and unexpected transitions from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, we experience the complex truths of Bianca’s cloud: it is not just rot, not just ugly ceiling stains and lost lovers, but magic and sensuality as well. In Lynn Sharon-Schwartz’s opening poem “For My Friend in Pain,” she writes that pain “is what we live in,” what we swim in. And yet, if we “stay very still,” beauty, like an iridescent fish, will show itself to us: “Beauty itself will nibble from your hand, / it will float alongside you.”
Or take Jennifer Metsker’s poem “Plastic Ocean,” woven with imaginative wordplay and urgent and playful statements like, “But I don’t want to stop at the edge of the whale spout,” or, “I listen like a mannikin, ears full of ocean.” Or Maggie Colvett’s short, eerie poem about the passing of time, “What the River Mouth Feeds Is Not the River.” Or Linda Michel-Cassidy’s “We Were Plotting Our Escapes,” a series of meditative vignettes set in a house on an island, in which she describes the vinyl floor as having “taken on the shape of the wake of a slow-moving boat.”
In selection and curation, Seeking Its Own Level does what all good anthologies do: it invigorates the subject matter by striking a balance between organization and variation. As we turn the pages, we know we’re going to be reading, in some way, about water, but each voice is distinct from the others. Eventually the voices begin to speak not only to the reader but to each other, weaving together and echoing one another in evocative ways. Like when Amy Brunvand’s poem “Solastalgia” echoes Patsy Rahn’s poem “Sign of the Times?” with the word “desiccate” (the only two pieces to use a form of that word, and they’re placed back to back on pages 48 and 49). Jon Krill’s poem “Home” recalls Amy Hempel’s story “Pool Night” with its image of personal objects afloat in water, and with the idea that deciding what to salvage post-destruction can in itself be a question of life or death. By the end of the anthology, readers will have collected in their minds a collage of uniquely expressed but similar images, a collage composed of both repetition and contrast: images of pools, swimmers, lakes, rivers, oceans, rains and floods, but each painted differently, and each expressed symbolically, literally, or both.
Readers may also notice the multidimensionality expressed in this anthology, both within individual pieces and in the kaleidoscopic progression from piece to piece. Its authors engage with linear time as well as with timelessness. Matt Prater begins his poem “Mono No Aware” with the lines, “The people have no history. / We live in myths.” By the bottom of that same page, we’re in “the mottled world // of desk clerks / and high school janitors / playing hanky panky / and Jack Rocks // in the Home Ec room / linen closet.” Or consider the lovely tension between Melissa Helton’s timeless “…woman with her rift / and blood aquifer to fill with water in the dark” and Jill McCorkle’s Mrs. Purdy, circa 1960, whose “shiny pink lips” extol the importance of the ocean on a warm fall day on the Carolina coast.
For anyone stuck inside on a rainy day, for anyone with a raincloud overhead all the time, or for anyone moved by water, afraid of water, or just downright thirsty, Seeking Its Own Level is a must-read. You’ll be reminded of the first time you jumped off the end of a dock. You’ll feel your insides rippling.
Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems can be found or are forthcoming in The Double Dealer and AGNI Online. She was a finalist in the 2013 and 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and a finalist in the 2013 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize.