Book Review

Temptation by Water by Diane Lockward, Wind Publications, 2010. $15

Reviewed by Moira Richards

I was just a quarter way into Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water when I happened on the internet trailer for the book. A book trailer? Yes! Diane is one of the few poets I’ve encountered who employ this intriguing marketing technique to help get their work out in the reading public’s eye. You’ll find the trailer on her blog here, together with Diane’s explanation of the method and thinking behind the compilation of what is essentially music, voice and images collaged into a two-minute YouTube presentation designed in the hope that “the trailer will tempt you to read the book.”

The cover design comprises Hokusai’s famous wave engulfing the blissful face of a woman and, as a line from the trailer asserts, “desire and water can sweep us away.” The poetry in the collection, like the currents of the sea, pulls the reader one way and then another; first we’re tugged towards gusty desires, greedy indulgencies, and next we’re pulled up against reminders of broken dreams and the emptiness of loss.

Diane divides her collection into five untitled parts, rather like the five acts of a play, and although there’s no strong narrative thread running through the whole, the poems do tend to cohere into a forward moving wave.

The first page of Part 1 begins with these startling lines:

…the weatherman says,
“Devastation results from desire.”
      (Weather Report)

Poems in the section tell of losses: the loss of youth, the loss of good health, sometimes even the willing loss or abandonment of self in the pursuit of desire. One poem slinks sinuously down the page as the narrator allows herself to be peel-able, skin-able, anything that her lover might wish to do with her. She seems aware of danger, she seems warned, but does she take heed? Does she, at this point, care?

   Would you lift
  off this skin,
 let it float
like a boa?

Would you take me
 as I am, or squeeze
  and squeeze, make me
   what I would not be—
    a sorbet, a pudding, a pie?
(Stripping the Lemon)

Part 2’s poetry shimmers with surreal images of loss and disappointment:

A flock of goldfinches—
tarnished, soft, and brilliant, flying fragments
of gold, as if the sun had shattered.
   (April at the Arboretum)

Notice those birds. Birds recur with varying effects through the book – as you’ll see further on too. Lockward’s earlier poetry collection, What Feeds Us is a gustatory delight and here, too, are poems of food sensuousness, though now with hints of disappointment:

Especially she craves figs,
their turtle-textured skin, resolute stem,
quirky resilience of the pendulous bladder,

and inside the sack, seeds that crackle like grit.
          (Woman with Fruit)

flattened by the rolling pin,
cookies that staved off hunger, hid in pockets,
slept under pillows until morning light,
and did not crumble,
(If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie)


This section does, however, end with an erotic piece about a young couple working (for a while) in their garden, embracing, and then repairing into their home to make more of each other. It’s filled with lusty double entendre and the last lines suggest hope, safety, optimism.

Imagine the bulbs of their bodies planted in bed,
clothes peeled and strewn like petals, the furrowing,
the tender raking of tillable flesh, flowers blooming
from ears and eyes, the red peonies of their mouths.
Shafts of sunlight warm the garden bed.
Long tender roots shoot down, strong enough for any storm.

         (Spying on My New Neighbours)

Part 3 continues with poems of escapes, dreams of escape from a desirelessness and for a while it looks as if the positive mood is here to stay:

Sequins sparkle as she slinks across the dais,
peels the skirt and tosses it as if rolling dice,
and then the bustier, hook by hook, and thrown aside,
a spider molting, her gaze at once smouldering and icy,
the swivel of hips, to keep the tease slow and steady.

But no. The last poem of the section returns to birds and narrates the tale of a flock of black birds that ate poisoned food, flew away into the sky and died there and all fell  back to earth. Stark, macabre imagery:

Starlings dropped from the sky,
mid-flight, like balloons suddenly deflated.

No time to spread their wings and glide on air,
and, synchronized, to soar and dive.

No time to close their wings, to wrap
themselves in shrouds of feathers, and sleep.

They fell like bombs, like stars, like fallen angels,
they fell like dead starlings.
      (A Murmuration of Starlings)


Back to earth in Part 4, like all those hundreds of dead starlings. Back-to-the-ordinary, regretful over-the-shoulder glances and here, witty comment on poetic techniques even as the poet harnesses them to her pen:

…He made me break every rule.
He was onomatopoetic, able to reel
me in, his flurry and fuss a feathered lure—
the stutter and lisp of him, his assonance soft as fur.

There’s regret laced with more delicious, devourable, gluttonous food imagery too:

He was every bad habit I ever had.
He was all trans fats and palm oil,
more dangerous than white chocolate.
He was the monosodium glutamate of lovers.
        (Side Effects)

And so, to Part 5. Where will all this desire end? In happiness? tragedy? regret? in renunciation, perhaps…?

Save your water and green vegetation.
What I want is the desert.
       (The Temptation of Mirage)

Or will the book of temptation and desire end with soup? Here’s a poem of comfort, consolation, and reminiscent of the poet’s sumptuous Linguini piece that was read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac February 20, 2009 (podcast still there for the enjoying).  

Let the people slurp their soup.
They are cold and famished.
They have longings, desires, hungers,
assuageable only by soup.

Mulligatawny, lentil, mushroom with dill,
beef barley, chicken with pearls of pasta,
hearty split pea with a ham bone.
Soup in bowls, in styrofoam cups, soup in crocks,
in jugs, mugs, and tureens.
         (“No soup for you!”)

No. This Temptation by Water ends with poems of tragedy and loss, and yet with the sense that life is still for the savouring.

Moira Richards lives in South Africa and hangs out here: and here: