Saturday 28 September 2019

Review of 'at the water's edge' by Nadia Gerassimenko

Rhythm & Bones Press, 2019.  $14 (12), ebook $10.

The dedication of Nadia Gerassimenko’s latest volume of poetry itself (‘to you’) is a supersonic grasping for the fly in aspic, it is a clutching at the crystalline moon in a sea-mist spray.  The book includes the sequence of Dolores poems inspired by Nabokov’s Lolita and its 1997 film adaptation starring Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons. 

Through these powerful poems Gerassimenko addresses not only illness and trauma but also the pertinent questions of our times that we as a society are still grappling with, struggling to comprehend, failing to understand; such as the issue of non-consensual relations which she argues desensitise the injured party so that they cannot even distinguish ‘a simple touch’ from that of the abuser (‘dolores hushed’, 11). 

In ‘freedom came in gradations’ her ‘inner voice’[1] that rises from the agonies of the soul is revealed most clearly in tongues of fire that are also indicative of the double-edged sword at the mouth revealed to the Prophet Isaiah and referenced in the New Testament vision of the final battle of good against evil, of light against dark forces.[2]  An Oxford exegetical Professor of Holy Scripture writes that ‘This is a symbol of the prophet, whose utterance has a cutting edge to it.’[3]  Gerassimenko immaculately whispers forth these inspirations to us in italics.  Her visions are seen through cracked windows, their epiphanies ‘birthed in me, / I stood & shredded / leftovers of pain-body // I un/attached’ (18).

at the water’s edge  is described on the blurb as a ‘rebirth through language’ but the birthing thereof matures and ages in other poems in the book.  Ted Hughes once said ‘I feel that my poems are obscure, I give the secret away without giving it’:[4]

            … i know i cannot force
            my red sea deluge of loves
            unto your wary porcelain frailty.
            or you will surely crack
            & i will surely bleed.
            but if ever the time comes
            to bare your soul,
            trust someone with your life
            & grant the scared key,
            won’t you let the right one in?

                        (‘let the right one in’, 27).

The ‘right one in’ is ‘above below’, an Eliotian poem of amazing brevity the title of which may well refer to the Hermetic aphorism of universal application As above, so below.  The rhyme in the first two lines links this poem with the Dolores sequence in the Latin/English suffix –ous, indicated by the bracketed and replete ‘joy(ous)’ (24), meaning full of, backtracking to ‘douloureuse’ and rhyming with its opposite in Sylvia Plath’s ‘dolorous’ in the poem ‘Sheep in Fog’.[5]  The wordplay on w(hole) in the final stanza also indicates part of the healing process in  both ‘dolores hushed’ and ‘above below’ where it is used with the same implication and in a way that expounds its first usage.  In the former the lines ‘complicated life is not convenient-’ (11) is also true conversely. 

The Dolores sequence culminates in the astounding ‘dolores forgives’ where in the breaking down of a word one may find advanced the meaning(s) and implications of another.  By being overt and unambiguous about it Gerassimenko highlights the importance of forgiveness to the healing process and not necessarily forgetting (as in a case of suicide in the title song ‘Forgiven, Not Forgotten’ by The Corrs from their 1996 album), this is explained in the title poem ‘forgetting is a matter of time / forgiveness, the ultimate release’ (‘at the water’s edge’ 23). 

In ‘elusive’ the fire is only ever assuaged by the waters of apperception where a beauty sits amiss; elusive and silent, heavy with emotion, reclaiming the ‘ghosts of lovers past in my womb,’ ‘& i craved water to dampen the earth in me.  i sought catharsis to rest my ghosts in peace.  but my salty tears kept drying me out, feeding them all the more; I could no longer be your loyal’ (30).  It goes on to deliver the very apt metaphor of two trees entwining with each other in order to nurture and protect one another in a stable loving relationship in a manner that allows a branching out, to respond creatively to the world about and that of others.  A bond rather like the houris of the Quranic Paradise that are described in an allegory ‘As though they were protected eggs with their glossy shine well cared for.’[6]

at the water’s edge contains the most deeply-felt and carefully crafted chapbook poems I have ever read (I am told they took four years to write) and it is well worth spending healthy hours and days looking up the diverse meanings and connections in these poems that form the whole.


[1] Jean-Paul Sartre.  L'existentialisme est un humanisme [Existentialism].  (Les Editions Nagel, 1946).
[2] And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished 
     shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me;
     And he hath in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance 
     was as the sun shineth in his strength.

                The Bible.  Isaiah 49:2, Revelation 1: 16.  (King James Authorised Version, 1611.  Oxford, 1997).  
[3] George Bradford Caird.  The Revelation of St John the Divine, (1966).
[4] Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev.  A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill, Ted Hughes’ 
      Doomed Love.  (Robson Books, 2006).  226.
[5] Sylvia Plath.  Collected Poems.  Edited by Ted Hughes.  (Faber and Faber, 1981).
[6] The Holy Quran.  Al Safat [The Rows]: 50.