Review of One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t, by Jacqueline Waters
Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 105 pages $15.00

By Evan White

Jacqueline Waters describes her second full-length collection, One Sleeps The Other Doesn’t in the following way: “Some of the poems are asleep, some try to stay awake long enough to learn something and a few employ a strategy of excessive concern with the process of their own production.” Of course, we shouldn’t take this as a direct avowal of authorial intent. I am interested, though, by the statement’s fusion of figurative language (in particular “asleep” and “awake”) and clinical precision (as in “a strategy of excessive concern with the process of their own production.”) Waters’ poetry, too, speaks through hybrid registers. And of course the book’s title suggests an interest in binaries, oppositions, or paired alternatives. What the poems enact, however, is not the assembly of strict dichotomies but an often virtuosic display of simultaneous poetic impulses. Waters’ writing is insistently and reflexively analytical; it is also structured by affecting and highly original narrative moments and images.

The book’s second poem, “Phil—”, is a twenty-four page riff of associations and meditations surrounding the titular harried groundhog/seasonal media fetish. The opening lines establish the poem’s favored method of presenting its images with accompanying interpretations. Here, a framing shot from a film is described alongside a rumination on film’s tendency to mask the conditions of its own production:

                As a movie it asks

                we look at a grave

        read a headstone, notice a man

                tending to the overturned earth

                atop an adjacent plot


                calculate the tightness of the shot

        ask if the filmer had a permit, or if Woodstock, Illinois

                was used again

        as a stand-in for Punxsutawney…

The gothic loneliness and bracing believability of the graveyard image invite us directly into an invented and contingent world, but we are mildly chastised for not attending to the material building blocks that make the whole production possible and actual. This happens a lot in One Sleeps: the visual and absorptive pleasures of poetry are offered and then snatched away by a demystifying commentary.

From here, “Phil—” unfolds a sprawling, first-person, non-linear narrative surrounding the oracular rodent and the voyeuristic, strangely menacing, and finally inscrutable human communities that endow him with special meaning. Some pages in, Waters reflects, “—if I’m still worried the Inner Circle / eats Punxsutawney Phil / each August at the Groundhog barbecue / stag, with roasted corn and homemade lager / then I don’t hope to atone nor regain an event I attended / a place I was / for a moment: my day, its night.” Here and throughout the collection, any literal, “real-world” reading of Waters’ huge tableaus is both partially invited and ultimately blocked by the frequent use of opaque and indiscernible narrative elements. And yet there is an elusive rightness and satisfaction in the crucial transition, in the lines quoted above, from the outlandish speculation about “Phil’s” unhappy fate at the hands of his human overseers to the sudden and clearly sincere concern with notions of culpability and “atonement”. This is representative, I think, of how Waters’ recurring personae and central images work not as elements of recognizable settings but as invitations to join in the poems’ sometimes comic, sometimes weighty reflections on perception, subjectivity, and responsibility.

“Phil—” and similarly expansive dramatic monologues comprise the first two-thirds or so of the collection. In the final section, these large structures give way to a series of short lyrics in which Waters’ attention begins to edge away from the political and towards the individual, without ever leaving the former entirely behind. In “Narcissulogy,” a man sees his reflection not in a body of water but in the face of a woman, by way of the sentiments he projects:

        hovering over her he felt: it’s frankly possible
                she’s too aware
        of what she might be thinking:
                not she as a private individual
        but as an army with no particular
                priority of operations

In Waters’ postmodernist Narcissus parable, the apparently “personal” boundaries drawn around sexuality actually reflect the social production of selfhood. Here is another case of temporary refuge in the affective and the lyrical being briefly glimpsed—i.e., “hovering over her he felt”—then immediately subverted by a kind of anxiously heightened self-awareness. (Notice the parallel here to Waters’ subterfuge of film’s reifying habits in “Phil—”. Just as the “she” of “Narcissulogy” cannot represent merely the stability of “a private individual”, the cinematic image of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is pressured by the speaker’s awareness of its potential real-world counterpart, “Woodstock, Illinois”.)

If I have so far under-emphasized Waters’ prosodic and musical facilities, this is only because in One Sleeps‘ they are in general means to the work’s philosophical ends. That being said, many of Waters’ most memorable sentiments seem to be driven by, rather than embroidered with, a finely tuned instinct for sound and association. Take the opening stanzas of “Aptecon”, which contain a lovely Stevens-esque note of patrician joviality:

        Useless to trouble orioles
        their long golden bores
        staged in pouts to persevere
        through a load of singsong, most severe…

        Even the dump
        hates to accept these things
        Not by the hour, the day
        eyes the second hand hacking its way
        through sounded air

There is a very basic beauty here in the outlandish diction, and in a book of epically-proportioned free verse the deft yet breezy handling of the end rhymes is almost startling. Yet even here, any attempt to indulge in unproblematically pleasurable reading is checked. Readerly indulgences this mode of verse might otherwise invite are identified and “exposed” by skeptical or acerbic cues: “a load of singsong”, “Even the dump”, “staged”, “pouts”, and so on.

What Waters communicates with these dual gestures—affirmation and negation; presentation and deconstruction—is, I think, a sense of poetry’s responsibility to be aware of its own constructedness. The drowsy pleasures of beautiful verse aren’t completely negated, but they’re always accompanied by a critical and skeptical alertness. One hand always knows what the other is doing: all the poems sleep, and all of them don’t.


Evan White lives in western Massachusetts, where he helps edit Slope Editions and attends the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass Amherst.

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