by Diane Lockward
Wind Publications, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-936138-12-8
Reviewed by Sally Rosen Kindred
It’s hard not to open Diane Lockward’s fourth poetry book, Temptation by Water, without the feeling of wading in, wondering if the water’s warm. The wave cresting over the supine profile on the cover promises something that the book delivers: a submersion that is as complete as it is deliciously complicated. These poems play across the tender spectrum of temptation, from the pleasures of birds “looping and soaring, cradled by air,” and “a bowl of mushroom barley soup to slurp” and “the sea/ like liquid emeralds,” to “the hard shell” of grief.
In the music of these poems, the beauties of living are brimming with violence—they are both consuming and waiting to be consumed. The early poem “Weather Report” uses the imagery of earthquake, storm and tsunami to evoke these dangers, and closes powerfully by warning of the slippage between longing and loss:
All night I think about metaphors…
how a slip of the tongue can change
desire into disaster, how desire and water
can sweep us away, and how we are all
looking for someone to push back
the waves, to grab hold of us, and keep us
here, pressed to this earth.
The echoes in “desire,” “disaster,” “desire,” and “water” push the reader steadily through rhythmic high waves to conclusion. In these poems, the imagery, too, is rich and compelling, working up the reader’s appetite. Lockward’s landscapes call to our hungers—in “Pleasure,” “goldfinches bright as lemon peels,” and in “Prunis Persica,” the face that is “flushed with indulgence of peach,/ blushed all winter in memory of peach.” But the world is filled with competing appetites, and the poems don’t turn from them. In “Hunger in the Garden,” the speaker’s “azaleas, too, surrender to teeth, to hunger’s chomp/ and winter’s bite,” and she is left with “the wreckage of absence.” The poems mark desire as both predator and prey.
The work also explores the tensions between, and implications of, resisting and succumbing to the world’s offerings. In “Why I Won’t Have a Full-Body Massage,” the speaker won’t trade vulnerability for pleasure: “This sorry sack of skin refuses/ a stranger’s gaze, my naked, dimpled sins/ exposed,” though the language to describe it evokes its temptations, “the slow slide of warm stones/ over hills and valleys of flesh.” However, the refusals here don’t set desire against its opposite in a simple dichotomy. The poems answer a question about what lies beyond the most easy and obvious of temptations. In “Woman with Fruit,” the speaker, who is “done now with ripeness, the mess of juice”—is not without desire:
Especially she craves figs,
their turtle-textured skin, resolute stem,
quirky resilience of the pendulous bladder,
and inside the sack, seeds that crackle like grit.
The startling, changed music of this need reaches beyond the simpler temptation of water. There is something bold and convincing in the voice in “The Temptation of Mirage” that declares, “What I want is the desert.” As the book moves to a close, the poems suggests the potent mystery in what there is to want from a world that’s less than abundant, to be gained from harder weather. In “Birdhouse,” for instance, “a single rose, though…we’d hoped for more,” leads to more of something else altogether:
We settled for what we could get, then birds
came to the feeder and roused us
with song, music that pierced the heart under the ribs.
Cardinals, goldfinches, nuthatches—some kind of IOU?
A gift of compensation? Not one sour
note sounded from the garden bed.
Profusion of feathers, music, and the persistent scent of rose.
The book’s structure is as seductive as its poems, and the act of seduction becomes both theme and form. The title poem, which acts as frontispiece, encourages the reader to fall into the poems the way the woman in the poem falls into a painting
she could wade into it and board a blue-hulled
boat, ride the waves of color—vermillion, jade,
gold, a slash of violet, could tread the razzle
of light on water…and here and there a splash
of black, like shadows foreboding something
she cannot name.
“Stripping the Lemon” names the rewards of its seduction: “I could be peeled/ like that, in liberal/ strips, one end/ to the other, skin/ lifted off in a spiral/ your hands aswirl/ knife slicing, flesh/ entire, membrane/ intact, white/ like a bridal veil….” The book is divided into five sections, but they resist simple thematic categories. Instead they offer a more organic unveiling, overlapping layers of image and theme. The idea of the broken family, for example, emerges in the second section, and reverberates in later poems, giving the fear of desire greater weight. This section closes with “Spying on the New Neighbors,” in which the speaker’s experience of loss informs her view of two lovers next door embracing:
Soft, smooth skin’s what I’m thinking about,
how young they are, how nothing bad has happened
While many of these poems are tinged with loss, there’s humor here too, play with language and metaphor—the whimsical repetition in “Filbert,” where musing on this “runt of a nut” generates a personality and a life: “You’re that kid whose mother/ named him Filbert,” a kid “subject to blight,” who dreams of being “star of your own story,/ stripped of your husk and lightly seasoned.” Poems respond to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, or find “Mary in a Grilled Cheese or Jesus in a Potato.” The result is a collection of poems that command a broad range, playing desire in many keys. At their strongest, they flood the page with their fierce vision.