Sound Travels On Water, by Kyle Potvin, $14 (Finishing Line Press)
“Back home I stand/ sand still draining/ through my hourglass toes.”
One of the major themes of the television series The Walking Dead is that death constantly surrounds us no matter where we are, a zombie apocalypse would just make it more noticeable. In the United States we have become accustomed to hiding death away, letting it dwell in convenient little boxes at the edges of our towns. In the chapbook Sound Travels On Water, Kyle Potvin fearlessly opens these boxes to give us all a peek.
What she finds is actually quite surprising. In the poem “Chemo”, Potvin expertly crafts a buildup of anxiety about the very title of the poem. She is fully aware of the changes this single word will bring to her life and those changes are what she fears the most. By the end of the poem an enormous change has taken place but despite her trepidation, it is a positive one. Instead of being a forerunner of death, “chemo” has actually brought the poet life. “I cried at the news story/ of a lost boy found in the woods;/ at the kindness/ of our baby sitter/ taking down the trash.” The change she feared is the one that has redeemed her and brought her closer to the vibrant world.
Not that death is completely devoid of frightening elements. “Chayote Fruit” explores the beaches and streets of Brazil as the poet is horrified by the bikinis and fruits that remind her of her own breast cancer. At the end of the poem the reader is completely drawn into the violent psychological imagery of the poet as “a man with a machete/ cleaves a coconut/removes a useless piece, /offers me milk/ from its shell.” In “Rogue Wave” such an abrupt loss is contrasted with the slowness of illness itself. There are two characters in the poem, each one on a different American coast. On the Pacific side a friend is suddenly taken by the waves while on the Atlantic side the poet is the victim of a “land-grabbing cancer” similar to the water methodically pulling the sand from under her feet. The poet leaves us with the unavoidable question of which would be the preferable exit, as she ponders the empty spaces of loss and distance.
Though these meditations on mortality are concerned with change, they also discuss the perennial. “Class of 83” offers two distinct moments from the poet’s life. The first is the night of a high school graduation spent with friends and the second is a reunion of sorts twenty-five years later. Though the poet and her friends have obviously changed over time, at the end of the poem they are still confronting the same dark mysteries of water that had confounded them as teenagers. The poem “Peace on Earth” explores the idea that for all our solitary raging we will eventually become part of a constant whole with the lines “snowflakes/ distinct as brothers/ brawl to earth/ smack jab jostle down/ to common ground.” And in the intricately crafted villanelle “The Napkin”, the narrator experiments with the napkin placement for a holiday dinner before returning to the traditions of her family. These insights are not the offspring of a cynical resignation, they are heirs to a wiser contentment.
In addition to the aforementioned villanelle, the chapbook is also comprised of a number of sonnets. These are traditional rhyming sonnets but the poet is also not afraid to take chances within the form. “Alter Ego” contains a stunning example of synesthesia with the line “I breathe the brilliant crimson of the lights.” The chapbook begins with the sonnet “Mise en Place” that describes the poet preparing a soup, as “small bits of flesh pull free” we are subtly introduced to the themes of death that will dominate the collection.
There is one more reason you should buy this book in case these themes or forms do not interest you. Potvin is donating three dollars from each chapbook sold to a breast cancer awareness/ research organization. But this is far from being the only contribution of this chapbook. Potvin looks unflinchingly at death, and in her own novel way she describes how it looks like contentment.
Benjamin Schmitt’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Sakura Review, Hobart, Wisconsin Review, Grist, Two Thirds North, and elsewhere. In 2013 Kelsay Books released his first book entitled The global conspiracy to get you in bed. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle where he teaches workshops to people of all ages.