Waterwork, Sarah Riggs (96 pp, $16, Chax Press)

As its title suggests, the underlying metaphor in this collection is water. In the first of the five sequences making up the book, 'Aquatics Of', water is the primal source, is flux. It is also the mind as flux, the mind that can see without knowing, that can only name but not explain. It is the inadequacy of language. The first of the ten sections states the case:
     The mind trips over
     the eye's event

     Watching breathes

     Brain coral spins on its names

And this is further elaborated with quotes from Aristotle and Husserl, among others, into an exploration - using language - of language's inability to explain phenomena, certainly not in their entirety ("bits of intelligence float"), merely rendering phenomena not

     Fixed, nor answered,

                           but seen,

and using words, which are 'hallucinogenic errors' to name, since

     each of us
     before, each



lodging in

     a slot in the coral
     relations without verb

Do things have names only because we are here to name them?

     as in, imagine a planet
     without us

We have the power to name and unname, even though our means for doing so are so unstable.

The second sequence, 'Cretan Monologues', comprises ten prose poems that resemble, at first glance, holiday postcards. The sentences leap from impression to impression, idea to idea, often by association or disjunction rather than any narrative thread, and conscious thought has become a burden:

     Thinking is heavy around. More in everything than it used to be.

The language is often disjointed, almost surrealistic:

     Can we imagine your relief when the sky finally did get re-papered?

This Crete is a place of coasts and water and horizons, where the horizon is important because 'people need to believe in a horizon, unexplored waters' and yet where  'the horizon fades forever and forever when we move.'

At the same time, this Crete is an island where mythology is part of daily life, sometimes surprisingly so:

     I met Cerberus unexpectedly this morning.

Yet that same mythology is really born of our own expectations:

     ... but then what do we ever expect but our own reflection, with slight deviations,
     improvements, aversions.

The sea as primal source of mythology is tapped again in the third sequence, 'mˇduse', for which, as Riggs says in her Acknowledgements, she has assembled a collage of lines which "overlap with, and alter, lines found in my notebooks, encountered first" in a wide and eclectic range of writers from Charles Darwin to Michel Foucault, George Eliot to George Oppen, and many others. Here,

      an inanimate laugh

           the seabed:

     corals and jellies
           click round

     what is trips

     names, for a lost mind

Recalling the "moon jelly" in 'Aquatics Of', this "lost mind" is at the same time medusa, the jellyfish, and Medusa, the (much-maligned) gorgon of myth, here just 'M'. Like the "bits of intelligence" in the previous sequence, she pervades the sea, an amorphous presence, like the sea without structure or end. But these names also seem inanimate:

     whether they were stones or alive was hard to know

and they are elusive:

     eyes drift out there

    as if separate
    from names

Again, as in 'Aquatics Of', there is the discrepancy between seeing and knowing/naming, but this time involving the mirror-imaging of being and seeing:

    as if emotion was
     names unnamed

     as if emotion saw

Emotion is thus primal, too, like mind, like M, and resists experience:

     looking she experiences the refusal of experience

but without experience words are devoid of a meaning to attach to (as in Hofmannsthal's 'Chandos Letter' or Rilke's 'First Elegy'):

     she only knew this is red without knowing what the word meant

But words can be made to mean:

     but M is present

     petrifies the out-there

     if she looks first,
     the words eye-to eye

                  words for what won't

It is only the gorgon's gaze that gives language the chance to become stable enough, petrified, to be able to mean at all. The eroticism of Medusa and of Perseus' encounter with her, which is also the engagement with language, is alluded to:

     disengaged slant corals
     to flower wet dreams

              reptiles, seaweeds, crabs
              sticky sex

And, although 'each snake is a sentence',

      to swim is to attempt writing a line in a medium that doesn't recognize lines

That this is writing about the process of writing and its inherent near impossibility is overt:

     to hyphenate error -


     but a dangling

     held to a

But even M cannot hold words to a single meaning for long and so (echoing 'a life sentence sways and curls' from 'Aquatics Of'),

     each name for a thing seems intent to curl from its shelled meaning

Language, being fluid and plural, is unable to mean unambiguously and words are coloured by their previous use by others, as Riggs shows here by refracting language through the prism of a range of other writers. To this extent, writing cannot be original; yet it is the job of poetry to rename, to recreate the precalcified state of coral, to cleanse language.

Auden observed that poetry makes nothing happen. Sartre, in 'The Responsibility of the Writer
', as quoted by Riggs in the epigraph to the next sequence, 'Responsibilities of the Champagne Flutes' goes further by pointing out that by naming a glass a glass, the writer does not make the glass move or transform it, so that, 'if truly to speak is not to change things, the writer can speak in utter irresponsibility.' The writer is thus freed to explore the nature of the very medium of language itself and its fluidity, its relation - or of lack of relation - to "reality". 'Responsibilities of the Champagne Flutes' is a sequence of prose poems, again, like 'Cretan Monologues', employing leaps and dissociations such as 'a kerosene lip, and three whales in a plastic bag', or 'Nearly neon outline of a chin' or 'The glass is pregnant.' Language, like water, is a medium in which things, we and our relationships, can grow; and perhaps promoting rather than hindering that growth, by freeing language from the depredations of the propaganda of political and economic interests, is the real responsibility of the writer.

The final sequence, 'Pigments' was written for an art book collaboration with the French painter, Anne Slacik, and links in with Riggs' own work as a visual artist - her installation (in Paris, where she lives), 'Underwritten - Chambre d'illisibilitˇ'
explores language plurality. 'Pigments', too, explores this plurality by implicitly associating words, with their multiple resonances, as the fundament of language:

     Where were the words going, and worse, would one have to follow? Characters
     inscribed on the cloaks may not follow the folds.

with pigments as the fundament of painting:

     Warning: a letter, or inscription,
     an inability to blue

with all the multiple emotional resonances and mixes of colour, and beyond painting, skin pigments, the plurality of humanity.

The frames of reference are wide, including geopolitical concerns such as Kosovo, Afghanistan and Rwanda, and culture, high, low and pop:

    How to explain the difference

    between Beckett and Cage? Madonna
     and B. Spears?

Even though words are second-hand and writing therefore cannot be original, the way of putting them together can, indeed, be original, and Sarah Riggs has achieved this. An impressive collection.

             © Catherine Hales 2008