Book Review: “Watermark” by Clayton T. Michaels, winner of qarrtsiluni's 2010 Chapbook Contest
Much like a watermark, Clayton T. Michaels poems flow and breathe with a deceptively light touch. They are slow to take, they seep in, they don't announce themselves. But their effect is indelible. Each poem is a complex, prismatic mystery, its own small work of art—spare, but packing a memorable punch.
These are poems that invite you to look again and again. Upon each reading, a new dimension or tone reveals itself. In “chokecherry”, Michaels takes what starts as a cheerful word play poem to unexpected depths, in which the last two stanzas evoke a sense of foreboding and lurking violence. “untitled #19” is a stunningly succinct meditation on coping with damage, ending with the stark line, “strike it right/it almost rings forever”. “melancholia is a collective noun” wanders through wide territory with mournful stanzas such as:
“This is the first stage of recovery--
irises the color of wet ashes,
mouth filled with pomegranate seeds
instead of teeth.”
In one of my personal favorites, “icarus”, the brilliant last line pulls the entire poem into focus, creating fragmented joy from a tragic moment.
Though many of the poems read as splinters and refractions of the author's idiosyncratic mind, all of them are cohesive and carefully constructed, never falling into the realm of the aloof or inscrutable. Michaels employs an elegant balancing act. The sadness, loneliness, and small tragedies evoked in these poems could easily begin to feel oppressive, but within each one there is always a sense of a coming thaw, of life germinating in the desolation. And some of them are purely joyful, such as “fiddler's hearth—summer, 2009” with its artful silliness:
“At one of the sidewalk tables, July sits tapping
her feet and smiling
skinned knees and larkspur braided into her hair”.
These poems never explain themselves, instead allowing space for the reader to wander at leisure, viewing them through their own lens, invited into the memories of sound and image. Michaels quirky, yet personable voice makes “Watermark” a strong addition to any poetry collection.