Renée Alberts’ debut collection, No Water, published by Speed and Briscoe (2009), is the story of a young woman who journeys through a landscape that shifts from nature to the urban and back again. A resident of Pittsburgh, Alberts is an active figure in the poetry community, both producing and performing in readings independently and as a part of the Carnegie Public Library, and it was with great excitement that I picked up her book.
The poems in No Water are mostly narrative and full of magical imagery, taking the ordinariness of, for example, the flight of helicopters overhead near a hospital and transforming them into events that make the speaker “dizzy/ with the countless life flights/fluttering against my breast”.
Alberts has divided the book into three sections; Spread to Map, Black Saturday, and Animal Prayers. In the first section, Spread to Map, she explores the concept of birth and beginnings, utilizing earthy imagery and, as in the rest of the book, a feeling of the magic of her world. The poems feel like an introduction to the landscapes that Alberts continues to pull the reader through throughout No Water, and many of them are not tame places to be, as she reveals in the very first poem, “Palm Sunday”,
“The cat stalks a monarch
feeding on zinnia.
She folds its wings
between her paws; this
is how we pray here, love –
The first section also introduces the reader to a number of themes that recur in the book, including a set of poems framed around the Lenten season, including the Christian Holy Week, at least one of which appears in each section of the book. By my estimation, these poems help to mark a theme of each section, the themes of life/birth, death, and rebirth, respectively. The second section is full of images of decay, death, and leaving – the impermanence of things, and the third of rebirth, be it a physical or symbolic one. There’s a beautiful depiction of a rebirth of sorts in the poem “Grace” wherein the speaker cuts open a pepper to find four “fetal peppers” nestled inside.
The aforementioned set of Lenten poems are part of another theme in No Water, which is that of an inner conflict between the religion that the speaker has been brought up with and which in its own way helps to define who she is or at least who she sees herself as, and the need to find her own spirituality. This particular conflict can be felt acutely in the poem “Contrition” which says, “Father, is this off the record?/Yellow-robed monks swept mandala grains/into the dustpan, center scattered/between floorboards – it thrilled me.”
The theme of the absent or “ex” father is also one that runs throughout the book. The father is an almost mythic figure and he offers up what is perhaps my favorite poem in the book, “My Ex-Father Eats a Live Honeybee”, which appears in the last section of the book and in which Alberts writes,
“But when you stood in front of the sun
like a blackspot and dropped a live bee
on your tongue, could you taste nectar
smeared on her needle feet?
Did your glacial teeth
crunch her downy abdomen?”
I first heard this poem at a reading of Alberts’ and was struck by the intensity, both of the act of eating a live bee, notably female, and of the way in which the father is presented as a dark presence, blocking out the sun and devouring the soft, feminine bee. This is a theme for the father when he appears in the book – a distant and looming figure who seems to wield an almost inhuman sort of power.
No Water is full of lush imagery and a strong sense of womanhood. Alberts is able to deftly navigate themes from spirituality to abortion to urban decay and have the reader follow eagerly along behind. It’s a lovely debut and definitely worth checking out.
Renée Alberts can be found at AnimalPrayer.com where you can also pick up a copy of No Water. She will also be the guest on Pittsburgh's poetry radio show, Prosody, on April 14th at 91.3 WYEP at 7pm, where you will have the opportunity to hear her read from her book.
Speed and Briscoe is a Pittsburgh small press and writing collective founded by Jerome Crooks in 1998. Since its inception, Speed and Briscoe has held numerous performances and readings. Its membership, events and publications have included some of Pittsburgh's most prominent writers and musicians. No Water is its eighth publication. Their most recent publication was in 2007 with Karl Hendricks's chapbook of short stories, Stan Getz Isn't Coming Back.
Review by Margaret Bashaar