the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2011



The Woman Who Wouldn't Shake Hands
by Chocolate Waters

The Woman Who Wouldn't Shake Hands

The Woman Who
Wouldn't Shake Hands
by Chocolate Waters

Poets Wear Prada Press, 2010; 46 pages; $12.00
ISBN 978-0935060096, paper

Reviewed by Linda Lerner

This quirky collection of skinny looking poems, lacking punctuation, belittle the enormous territory they cover: it is nothing less than the human heart—that need for love and a corresponding need that guards against its fulfillment. An acknowledged lesbian, Chocolate Waters transcends its definition and any other which seeks to confine her. This is evident in the unexpected turns her poems take often doing a complete about face.

She accomplishes this by playing with a word as in a jazz riff. In the collection's first poem, "begin," notice what she does with the word, caught. "You came that night / you came up to me / that night i/ caught/ your eye / that night you / caught me." In another poem, "plunge," she begins with a very strong assertion, "don't wanna be no / straight girl's experiment" then adds, "do I?" The poem continues in this vein, going from her to You. We're never sure if she's referring to someone else, to herself or possibly to both, which adds to its complexity.

The poem that does this best, I think, is "desire," in which she asks, "what's the sound / desire makes as it / comes / crashing/ down" which begins by acknowledging that well known koan: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it does it make a sound. But, Waters doesn't end there. If "it never gets to come / as it crashes / down/ do / you hear the sound / desire / doesn't get to /make?

A tribute to the poet's technique is how much is said in these poems without it actually being verbalized. In "phone vodka" she describes a conversation between two women, "sacred / profane/ w/olives or / w/out/ and in between: worlds." "dear joan" begins with the poet, having been rejected, berating herself for not ever being good enough, then comes to the conclusion "it's really you / that you're rejecting / not me."

The ability to step back in a poem and survey the situation objectively that she's been subjectively caught up in takes a great deal of skill. This is most apparent in those poems about her parents, and their dysfunction: "how their words bashed / each other silly." She describes her mother as a person "who wouldn't / know a feeling / if she fell over one" early in a poem which proceeds on to her grandfather, "…drunken shithead of a man" who "bit the feeling right out of / my mom/ who then had none for me."

There is no resolution: "how long / do I have to keep reliving my parents' / dysfunction" she asks. The answer is in the silence. There are so many things one has to be sorry for, and, she says, "sorry that I /am / so damn/ sorry."

But no reader will be sorry to have read these poems—the poet's first collection in thirty years—whose unexpected shifts, and word play share much with music. We hear what we read on the page, and what we hear will linger, like a melody, in our minds.

Linda Lerner was born and educated in New York City. She has published thirteen collections of poetry. Among them are Something Is Burning In Brooklyn (Iniquity Press/ Vendetta Books, 2009), Living In Dangerous Times (Presa Press, 2007) and City Woman (March Street Press, Fall, 2006), the last two both Small Press Reviews' Picks). Two previous collections also had that honor.

In 1995 she and Andrew Gettler began Poets on the Line, the first poetry anthology on the Net for which she received two grants.

Her poems have appeared in New York Quarterly, Onthebus, Louisiana Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragged Lion Anthology, Chiron Review, Danse Mcabre, Tribes, Van Gogh's Ear, Home Planet News, New Verse News, Rusty Truck, She has read widely across the United States and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Her most recent collection, Takes Guts & Years Sometimes, (New and Selected Poems), was published by New York Quarterly Books (June 2011).