Maryanne Hannan on Diane Lockward


Temptation by Water by Diane Lockward. Wind Publications, 2010.

The temptation to read Diane Lockward's latest book, Temptation by Water, as the final volume of a trilogy, building on her two previous full-length collections, Eve's Red Dress (Wind Publications, 2003) and What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006)—proves as irresistible as her luscious homage to peach, "Prunis Persica." The books, with striking cover art by Brian Rumpolo, complement each other physically and share the same gutsy, intelligent voice, forthright exploration of a deeply particular human life, and lavishly precise language.

Post-Edenic temptation and hunger thread their way through all three volumes. In the first book, Eve declares: "I didn't fall to temptation—I rose to it" (ERD, 2). In the second, "Eve walked out of the Garden … / didn't know where she was going, / but knew she'd need something to eat" (WFU, 4). By this book, the worst temptation might be no temptation at all, the absence of desire, or a wish for merging, "like Alice free-falling down the hole," from the title poem (TBW, 1).  Eve, more Everywoman than the Biblical persona in Lockward's mythology, does not appear directly in Temptation by Water, but "that sexy red dress you couldn't afford now on sale" does in the off-sonnet, "Pleasure" (TBW, 7).

Readers of Lockward's poetry know better than to expect autobiographical fidelity. She exercises imagination like the Wife of Bath, for whom "al is fals" and the truer for being so. Still, we know from earlier work that gardens are not necessarily idyllic places. This makes all the more poignant "Hunger in the Garden," her garden ravaged by "hunger's / chomp and winter's bite," leaving her "the wreckage of absence." Still, she hopes for spring, the return of a raccoon family: "I want to believe in regeneration, that what's gone / can return." She wants "buds back on the branches / you here in spring, your hunger and mine appeased." (TBW, 19-20).

"Touch me and burn," tempted Eve's red dress (ERD, 49). "The heart wants what it wants, / and what it wants is fire," proclaimed the narrator in "Pyromania," (WFU, 81). Fire is less benign now. In "St. Elmo's Fire," "Other things go up in smoke—hope, dreams, love," except for the regenerative salamander: "lucky creature / endures fire and smoke yet suffers no harm" (TBW, 50) This is far removed from the gauntlet thrown by the earlier narrator:

I'd like breasts just that white-hot
as once they were under the touch
of my lover, so recently departed.
I'd like to burn the crematorium down. ["Pyromania," WFU, 82]


Sizzle's allure is revisited in "Flash," only to conjure up the narrator's more mature experience of heat: "An obscene action, it brought out the bad girl in me. / Foreshadower of how, years later, I would be mugged / by waves of heat, cascades of sweat / under my blouse, rivulets into my bra" (TBW,  51). "You think it’s easy," complains the "Ecdysiast" about the challenges of her job (TBW, 52); it sure seemed easy to the tattooed, belly-dancer-clad "Honey, you're on your way to Paradise" waitress in "Eve's Diner and Road Stop" (ERD, 26).

In this new work, Paradise seems lost, more likely to be found in the past than in the come-hither future, or electric present. "The Jesus Potato" explores this poignantly in the superstitiously pious protagonist who "wants to believe in miracles." Remembering


. . . their salad

days, so raw and green it seemed a miracle,
and then the undressing, the miracle
of their uncanonized bodies, the piety
of two pairs of lips sealed. [TBW, 48]

Now she is reduced to wishing her husband "less stolid," beseeching signs not of an afterlife, but a renewed life here: "and she prays for vegetables maculate and soiled." (TBW, 49)

Despite its title, I found the temptations of earth as compelling as those of water. In "Weather Report," the narrator thinks

about a man who does push-ups
not to lift himself off the ground
but to hold down the earth
and how the earth cracks
and it has nothing to do with weather. (TBW, 5)
. . .
That night she thinks
. . . about metaphors,
how one thing is always like some other thing,
. . .
. . . 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 [TBW, 6]

Similar imagery, with a different twist, occurs in the final stanzas of "My Mother Turns her Back":

. . . I watch my mother

grow down, as if she carries
            a burden of basket, as if
                        already greeting the earth. [TBW, 18]

"Cover me in filth," cries the Prodigal Daughter narrator in "My Dark Lord," "for I have lain down with pigs" (TBW, 38). "Lay me among the potatoes." "Let me be the final supper."

. . . Christen me your own dirty girl.
Immerse my body in weeds and worms.

Break me with your shovel, backhoe, and tractor,
for I have abandoned the garden and cursed the earth. (TBW, 38)

This marvelously oracular poem gains complexity as it hovers between the garden Eve so bravely evacuated and the narrator's of "My Father's Garden" experience: "It will look / like Paradise. It will feel like Hell." (ERD, 28)

The next poem, "Spying on My New Neighbors," presents another instance of vicarious love, the garden once again positive. Here, the neighbors are "tilling the soil, building their garden" (TBW, 39). They "walk off the job," tempting the narrator to

Imagine the bulbs of their bodies planted in bed,
clothes peeled and strew like petals, the furrowing [TBW, 39]

Lockward is off and running, her considerable ability to ground physical love in provocative metaphor and language to the fore. It's also worth mentioning the careful structure of Temptation by Water; poems follow upon each other, always for a reason. Often a word or image, the same or nearly so, here earth to soil, provides a bridge from one poem to the next, adding considerably to the thrill of reading.  

"Supplication to Water," a poem of direct address in couplets similar to "My Dark Lord," dives directly into the water themes of the book. It arises from a simple moment of clarity, in which the narrator extrapolates cosmic guilt from a routine watering of a suburban lawn:

Afflict me, for I have squandered you on grass
green as money, then cursed you during the drought. [TBW, 61]

Once again, the language riffs with Biblical and classical cadence. "I have lain with dogs and consorted with pigs . . . . prayed for your conversion / to wine." "Let me enter the same river twice, for I am grungy." "Convert my frozen heart to cold hard cash."

More compelling than baptism by either fire or water is "the illusion of water" in the  "The Temptation of Mirage," one of the book's high points. Also a direct address in couplets, this time to the universe, the speaker knows her own heart.

Save your water and green vegetation.
What I want is desert. [TBW, 79]

She accepts "eternity of sand, an open-air coffin," in exchange

for one night only, quench of beauty

more real than I can bear,
closed forever by morning sun. [TBW, 79-80]

In "Desolation of Wood," Lockward entertains a fifth element from the Chinese system, wood:

. . . I want to forget
fire, air, water, and earth, want to believe
the trees are a sign I can be wood. [TBW, 73]

Even though the trees of her imaginings project the hunger she's wrestled with through all three books:

The trees stand apart from each other.
They look lonely, as if abandoned,
hungry, as if they want or need something. [TBW, 73]

Not all is serious in this book. Many poems offer Lockward's playful wit, her uncanny ability to go beneath language in "Without Words for It," her amazingly celebratory, erotic "Stripping the Lemon" and "Why I Won't Have a Full-Body Massage," and the ultra-sensual food poems, "Woman with Fruit" and "If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie."

Lockward prizes honesty, the truth of the human heart. If a poem goes some place, she goes with it, so the framework of trilogy that I'm suggesting does not sufficiently honor the individuality of the three books. Temptation by Water stands firmly on its own, replete with the poet's signature takes, a romp in her imaginative world. Still, the possibility of reading the three works in the context of each other was too tantalizing for this reader to pass up. With the publication of a third solid book of poetry, Lockward should be taken seriously. I, for one, am anxious to see where she goes next.

Maryanne Hannan's poems have been published in Magma, The Mom Egg, Naugatuck River Review, Umbrella, upstreet, and numerous anthologies. She is a Contributing Editor at Cerise Press: A Journal of Literature, Arts and Culture.



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