Wading Through Lethe, by Paulette Guerin, FutureCycle Press, 2022, 84 pp.
Reviewed by N. S. Boone
Paulette Guerin’s first book is entitled Wading Through Lethe. The title is important, for it not only highlights the book’s key themes of memory and loss, but it also indicates the function of the lyric in the volume. Lethe refers to the waters of oblivion. Plato, in Book 10 of The Republic, speaks of souls drinking of the waters of Lethe immediately before they are reincarnated and after they have spent 1,000 years in the afterlife. Lethe forces a forgetting of what has gone before, and, in Plato, clears the way for a new existence. But Guerin isn’t drinking the waters of Lethe, she’s wading in. It’s as if the water itself is memory and Guerin’s poems are an effort to find the salient pieces of the past in order to build a lost soul back together again.
Guerin’s poems are lyrics, short lyrics. And one of the functions of the lyric is to stir up memory and desire. The book’s first section is made up entirely of poems that come from the speaker’s childhood—an Ozark Mountain childhood, with its obligatory churches, dirt roads, and small towns. Though you or I have never played in the same streams, watched boys jump of the same railway bridges into the same rivers, or heard the same worn-out church organs as Guerin’s poems describe, we each are called back into the same child-like position—to remember what it was was like. But the lyric doesn’t take one back to document or describe, it stirs memory by pointing to that salient aspect—that beautiful thing, that precious moment—perhaps not realized at the time. In fact, it may not have been realized at all until the poet brought it up within us:
At the Creek
“If only my memory were sharp again,” she said,
sitting on a stump near the creek’s edge.
I waded in the shallow cool, pants rolled, wet.
Her straw hat brimmed a shadow
over her face. The stones shimmered, each more
dazzling than the last.
We have been in a similar stream, shared a similar moment, but without the poet wading through Lethe to stir up these gem memories, those dazzling stones would never have resurfaced.
The book’s first poem, “Gingko,” is a kind of ars poetica for the volume:
Through the rain-thrash
the stems cling to each limb.
After the other trees
green to gold,
red to brown,
stems rattle in the dawn.
The ginkgo waits,
then lets go.
The tight focus on the thing itself—the natural object—is apparent throughout the book, but most characteristic is the haiku-like effect of the final lines. Guerin’s poems work this way—walking us through our own past, walking us through a scene we’ve been part of before, taking us to that Gingko tree we should have noticed, and perhaps did long ago. Then blasting us with the beauty and the irony wrapped so tightly together in the scene. The irony that never gets old, and which Guerin consistently picks out for us to notice, is the brevity of beauty. Something so perfect, so lovely, so fitting, so meaningful ought to last, and why not? In “Chicken Farm” she writes,
On the banks of the river,
a steering wheel dangles
from a rope. While the boys
swing and jump, she skips stones,
noting the brief buoyancy
before each is sucked back into the river.
Guerin’s poems instruct us in how to handle the brief beauty—the moment when that stone rides the top of the water as if it were designed to do so—and the boys, like the stones, tossing themselves with abandon into the burying water. We see it again in “A Week Before She Died,”:
I ate one of her lemon bars
Thinking nothing of holding
Something so delicate
It lost its shape in my hand.
How can we hold these beautifully brief gems? Only by wading through Lethe. Only through the lyricism of the poem.
Guerin’s best poems end with images that provide a striking sense of irony while not yielding to quick and easy interpretation. See “Y2K”:
I turned fifteen and waiting for a beginning,
then and end. Mother stocked the cabinets with cans.
In the safe, she kept paper slips
with our names, dates, ink footprints.
On New Year’s Eve, Grandma brought over
The gun she kept beneath her pillow.
We ate our lucky black-eyed peas
And watched the ball drop. The radio sat in the corner,
Batteries splayed around it like empty shells.
It’s the perfect image to complete the scene. Empty shells, as in the empty promise of Y2K, of beginnings and endings, of something that will finally make a difference in the not-yet-filled life of a fifteen-year-old growing up in the Ozarks. What could fulfill a sense of yearning and adventure more than apocalypse? The empty shells recall, also, the empty bullet shells from the gun Grandma brought over and the violence teeming underneath the pieties and proprieties of this Ozark life, or, perhaps, under any life.
Lethe signals another facet of this volume—how Guerin exploits myth to amplify the meaning of salient pieces of memory, the precious moments. Mythical allusion is another way to press meaning beyond the bounds of imagistic, haiku-like poems. Penelope makes a couple of appearances, as do Sisyphus and Orpheus/Eurydice. Lot’s wife (turned into a pillar of salt for looking back to Sodom in Genesis 19) is not explicitly mentioned, but her situation expresses a vital tension of what it means to wade through Lethe. In “Airport” the speaker disembarks from a plane into “a sepia world the color of things past” and she wonders “if glancing back would mean the end / of faith, the loss of promised things.” The poems, of course, have all been acts of glancing back, of longing for beauty once held in hand. Glancing back to bring back up, to reconfigure, to build within one’s soul a fountain of memory-filled waters. But glancing back is not looking forward, and this has been the critique of lyric nostalgia throughout the 20th century, beginning with the Modernists’ critique of the Romantics. Guerin knows her lyric jewel boxes have power—but is the power bewitching, or freeing?
In “The Little Mermaid Vacations in Florida” the speaker says, “If youth is possibility, adulthood is choice.” The now human mermaid in the poem longs for her old life in the ocean: “Sometimes she forgets / how to walk, spending hours in the bath.” In a hotel “she swims until the water is cold”; no longer able to hear her lover’s talk, she can only hear the ocean where “There’s just the water-whipped / rush of some large fish snagging a meal. / She’s heard of people who swim / so far they can’t go back.” The poems all call us back to youthful possibility—the shining brilliance and beauty of youth. Adults want to swim back to it, and the poems could be siren calls to that end. But they can be otherwise, which is why Guerin provides critiques of nostalgia.
Poems must open possibility by providing choice. It’s far too easy to be dazzled by jewelry in a box, to be turned into a pillar of salt listening to bewitching tales that call us back to lost beauty in melancholy tones. We pine for what’s been lost, but we must choose what to do with it, knowing the consequences. Guerin gives us the choice, with a sort of classic Greek austerity, in “You can never go home again”:
but if you do,
driving beneath the cocooned orbs
of interstate lights,
exiting toward a darkness
where deer emerge like memories
you hope to swerve and miss,
thinking you could be anything
beyond what this place expects,
that you won’t open your mouth
for the bit.
Go back to youth, go back to this beauty of childhood possibility, but know that in going back you lose your freedom. In staying free, you can never go back.
The way out is the responsibility of the poet—to do more than look back. And Guerin realizes this even as she writes squarely in the mode of lyric nostalgia. The way out is deepening complexity—the tensions and ironies that can never be smoothed out and will never allow for easy rest in simple interpretation as in “Y2K,” or “At the Coffee Shop” where Guerin’s speaker says, “I’d give up the night, / but it’s a given in this strange world / populated with imaginary friends, // where the self is not one but many.” The way out also comes through pushing past lyric simplicities. Guerin’s best poems work this way: stirring memory and desire, leading us by hand through Lethe, pulling out dazzling stones with which we construct fountains of memory within our souls.
Paulette Guerin is the author of poetry collection Wading Through Lethe and the chapbook Polishing Silver. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Florida. She lives in Arkansas and teaches writing, literature, and film. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets, ep;phany, Contemporary Verse 2, and others. Her website is pauletteguerin.com.
N. S. Boone’s academic essays range from scholarship on D. H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and E. A. Poe, to Homer, the Book of Revelation, and the seventeenth-century vegetarian Thomas Tryon. He’s also written on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Mark Strand, and more. He’s published poems in Streetlight Magazine, Cave Region Review, St. Austin Review, Georgetown Review, and elsewhere. He likes to fish and preach.