Culling from six previous volumes, Waters has erected a monument to sentimentality and narcissism. Practically all of his “subjects”—Miles Davis, snakes, apples, hummingbirds—are exposed as excuses to talk about himself. They are reduced to mere props, and a reader wishes he had followed the example of Moore or Bishop (whose descriptions illuminate, rather than obfuscate, their subjects), instead of compulsively tossing in formulaic epiphanies and self-disclosures. Waters displays more evidence of effort than of craft: in two syllabic poems he refers to the counting of syllables and, never content to let nouns stand alone, he gussies them up with adjectives, often as many as three at a time (the earth is “this green, / incorrect, forever dying planet”). Keats’s influence is apparent, sometimes to an embarrassing degree (“I clumped up the knoll to the kiddie-loud / pool”), and his descriptions tend to crowd out whatever else might be happening in the poems: sliced cucumbers are “watery wheels, columns of coins”; cognac is “sage and flame,” “blunt amber,” “mulled / smoke, brassy phosphor.” Waters is capable of restraint: “Romance in the Old Folks’ Home,” despite the corny, condescending title, is genuinely sweet, due to the fact that the poet’s own memories and poetical “insights” do not intrude. He refers (ironically, one suspects) to “those minor poets who endlessly / exalt the vast stupor of childhood,” but some of the better poems do just that with humor and heartbreak. In “The Conversion of Saint Paul,” he recalls how one Sister Euphrasia had “pasted Easter seals on my skull . . . pretending to air-mail me to China” and how later, during a school play, she adjusted his underwear, then “whispered Jesus / would be judging [his] performance.”
Occasional bright spots, however, can’t redeem an overwrought and overwritten collection.