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(REVIEW) Heavy Waters, by Ed Luker


Diving into the violet depths of Ed Luker’s Heavy Waters (87 Press, 2019), Gloria Dawson explores what is meant by ‘a kind of graving of language’ which might also be an act of salvage in a churning world of border violence, migration, violence and the torsions of lyric, fantasy and wounding.

> Heavy Waters is a series of five pieces of writing, two of which are prose and three verse. The sea runs through it, the sea and the shoreline, and drowning, and the movement of bodies in water. Its shortest epigraph comes in three words from M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008): ‘defend the dead’. Philip’s extraordinary long poem is an attempt, using the words found in a crucial legal document concerning the murder of slaves, ‘to not tell the story that must be told’, and, by means of the breaking and reforming of sentences, grammars and even words, to come to a new understanding of the violences of slavery, both particularly and in general. Like Philip, Luker is concerned with ‘a system that permits murder’, in Luker’s case, not slavery as such but rather the murder of those forced to move in various migratory processes.

> As I started reading this book, I visited Govan Graving Docks for the first time. This huge and now anomalous industrial structure, wild and crumbling, is where many of Glasgow’s colonial and trading ships would come to have their hulls burnt to remove accretions, then re-tarred and dried before being launched out onto the Clyde and the seas. Graving, with its apparent etymological relationship to ‘engraving’ and its visual proximity to ‘grave’, with all the meanings of that word, is in fact more likely to come from the Old French and French dialect word for ‘shore’, ‘greve’, although in contemporary French, as in English, it now comes to mean serious, concerning. It feels to me that both Luker and Philip conduct a kind of graving of language, at least in terms of the first part of the process; a scraping and burning off of what is no longer of use, and a closer look at what might be salvaged. Perhaps this is an optimistic reading of both projects, and maybe it’s simply the case that much of the poetry I feel connected to does something like this, and does it from a legibly political standpoint. However I also feel anxious about the possibility or desire for legibility, as I hope I can explain a bit further on.

> The book begins in short fragments, often rhymed, moving through sea and tide. Luker works over the words ‘out’ and ‘outward’, always at the same time somehow drawing on ‘in’ and inner. A swinging, keening tide develops, calling out ‘the ocean’s illegibility/ no grace for names’. This wave seems to crash in the named poem ‘On the Rock’, a retching in and out on violences of inclusions and exclusions:

And so to ask to rise again, we are            always so in so out of step to tread this water, this terror outside            Borne out a flood, this rising temperature.

There is a painful proximity of ‘in’ and ‘out’ here, and a claustrophobia; ‘Is there no new that steps out or back down?’ This proximity enacts a border – its arbitrariness, its absolute violence.

> By far my favourite section is ‘The Sea Together’, where Luker really stays with the problem of lyric and pleasure, and where the graving takes place. This section thickens up in linguistic density, form and intention. In contorted torsion, most of the poems are packed into three four-line stanzas, most lines with seven syllables. The first poem is there to hold and clasp the reader  - ‘I know who will read this I/ know who it’s for you for your/ eyes locked… - but there’s also a pain in this address. The difficulty of who is being addressed, that there are many potential ‘you’s and that a poem addressed to a dead person might not be able to meet them (ethically, mournfully) is present throughout the verse sections in particular. The repeated kenning ‘the wonder-wounded’ both recalls the poem’s earlier lines ‘in the poem/ you appear/ with wounds open/ and mouth closed’ and also opens up a line of possibility of the spectacle of suffering – is the audience of the poem/ the poet the ones wounded by wonder? And if so in what way? But in another sense, wonder has dreams, speculations and fantasies that cause pain. This phrase reminds me that a wound is an opening and a distance.

The nothing that wants you pour            wretch the poet on a sunk lid to stand on a sore point            from which to fit empty deeds from inward say more pity            the gravemakers to drown or hang it all themselves spin the            pattern on another’s heal by flag and dust fits bowstring            hits mute on the victim pledge the bounds more lines relief from            for you nodding nodding nodding the nothing count quality of            affection fury you stand on land drying eye or throat            the wonder-wounded.

At its best this poetry is both stony and absolute/ly livid and fluid. In this book, Luker confronts a problem also found Philip’s notes to Zong!: that there is no equivalent word for water for what ‘exhumed’ or ‘dug up’ means on land. ‘Does this mean that you can never be exhumed from water?

> In a recent reading, Luker has said that the work is intended to be read as a series of embodied sounds, but also that he finds it hard to read out loud. I think this is central to the problem of these poems. Luker is navigating difficult waters, ethically and formally (and knowing that these cannot often be separated). For me, the prose sections, especially ‘Heavy Air’ often feel overburdened with the poet’s anxieties (which I often share) about the ethics of representation, and the need to explain not so much what the poems are trying to do as what is urgently hurting, burning the writer in grappling with mass suffering at a distance. I don’t think the work can avoid here confessing an explanation of sorts. However, I appreciate Luker’s work as honestly trying to move with these problems, and not gloss them over, trying to speak through rather than about these things, as he puts it. And not to ventriloquise people.

> There’s such a longing for transformation and justice in these poems, and at the same time there is just as much space for the doubt that it will come to those who need it most. In the note that follows the poems, Luker takes a different tack from Philip in reference to the task that we - the readers and the writers – should set ourselves to: ‘honour the dead by defending the living’. For me this signals that the real limit of poetry’s power is also a challenge to defend life and the possibility of everyone’s lives by any means necessary.

Heavy Waters is out now and available to order from the 87 Press. 


Text Gloria Dawson

Published: 12/5/20


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