myth and poetry

MP Review:
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Just Below The Water Line 
Reviewed by Stephanie Pope
Just Below The Water Line: Selected Poems
Winchester Canyon Press
ISBN 0-9706149-3-4     $15.95

For a printable version of this review click here

Just Below The Water Line: An Alchemy in Image, Soul and Self

I had the privelege of spending time in the landscape of this poetry while it was still a manuscript. The poet, in asking me to look at it, had asked only that I “respond to the experience with fresh poetic eyes.” So I began dreaming about water lines and perspective even before the manuscript reached my mailbox.

It was not until much later, when I saw the book cover, that Venus Anadyomene breached the thin skin of my water-waking reverie in its quest for perspective. What if you could clothe a spirit of motion pouring through a wound in the nature of psyche expressing the psyche of this matter with words the way Arnold Böcklin clothed Venus Rising in the diaphanous gown of water? [i] Will this poetry and this poet (does he and will it) somehow take me to this deeper plane of experience where words are mere tools giving shape to dialectics between soul and self?

If the perspective asks that we dip below the flow of words on paper, not only is a soul of water and word meaning to be found outside us and in the world we experience, but water becomes a central image for a standing depth beneath us, a mirror of “under” standing “just below” us. If so, and this is the journey we are to take through the body of this work, then let us proceed with this in mind and enter the brink.

Who, in image, under-standing us (re) imagines us just so? Water, and even more specifically, it is ocean water (Oceanus). Water then, imagines and is the author-at-large in my perspectives where the poet is seeing and expressing throughout the body of these selected poems, water’s life to me. The author (de) scribes this for me in the title and in doing so, invites me to enter what is well-versed through the telos of water’s own re-imagining body…

Such a place for a splash
only to bring soap makes the warm water
                        - Einstein’s Bathtub

And with that, Slattery invites each reader across the threshold of Oceanus, the god of the backward flowing river ocean, to reach the underworld waters flowing in the depths of nowhere

The bubbles morph and
warm H²O mates briskly with
MC², motion shifts on Wednesday from
an upperworld of clear broth
to an underworld of clouded ether.

Poetry is the making of images with words. It is a craft. It requires the skill of a craftsman to achieve and render its invisible forms. If words are the tools the poet uses, and his attempt is to clothe Beauty in and with undercurrents exposing Beauty’s depths, and if the soul of Beauty is in poetic language imaged the way it is on the front cover, the reader can expect Slattery’s poetic imagery to imitate the primal Law of the Sea: civilization will end at the waterline.

Bow, then; turn the black metal of
solitude towards the heat of a melting rod.

Life quickens in the forge. Tempers
cool in the screech of steel pummeled by

Some deep core of iron in me tempers
in elements clashing. It seeks some taming
as old as elemental strife.
                                 - Hammered Fire

At the end of this volume of poetry, the poet gives the reader a way to participate imaginally in taming this body of work through their own poetic response to these poems. “Center on the words,” he says, “listen in a non-willful way for what they expose.”

Such a place for a splash

Civilization is suddenly up for grabs, will it end here?

Just to touch time
would make the air feel
like its mine
belongs to me…

So you think this may end?


so many H’s to process
heavy in breath,
Pour me no vapid water. –Stillwell’s Market Binge

There are always many more H’s to process made from through and by the shattering of the perspectival “O” rounding the Circle River. One of these H’s belongs to the mime, Here-And-Now. Water, again obliges, by breaking wave, its vessel. It pours this story forward through an inward-backward dimension of a zest heavy ("pour me no vapid water"), heavy in breath. Something begins to re-embody visibility again "here" and "now".

Through an evoked response the poet skillfully swells words with old waves and these retell by drawing the ever farther out water line toward a shore where Oceanus and Ouranos once drew hither the blade of time...

Five of us gathered against the glass top
of the Hardware store’s case and gazed through
a bloodied sea into the bottom
of the waters.

There we saw the ebony handled knife, a chrome
button in the center and silver ends with
tiny rivets to arrest the blade from exploding
out of hand…
                             - First Knife

Kronos (Time) cuts through Eternity’s presence right here and just so and marks time with this depth, a plimsol line that will always keep humming a sensual harmonics in watery motions. In play and steady with ballast, the cargo hidden in the hull of this poet’s poetic thought foments colorful emotions as energetic motions give rise to Beauty...

Green cash for the black and chrome hardness of
something more powerful more elegant, more
courageous than a pistol to be carried in his pocket
like a potent legacy of post-pubescent flesh.

”Keep that little lock slide on” we warned and
laughed. “If that mean dormant
ferret gets loose in your pocket you may never
know fatherhood.”

Throughout the poetry volume these poetic senses tell us that the birth of Beauty both falls into world from above (idea) and rises from below (image) out of a turbulence of mating oppositions that make the air that shapes it (in us) feel. The following lines sound the darker depth tone “sharp enough to cut neatly…some feeling evoked, some hunger, a deep desire to penetrate a resistant soft thing” (First Knife). Water buoys this re-membering upon the tail of the dolphin hiding itself in a cup where it also hides within the body of this poetry several tales of fish...

For more than a year I held to the blue
fluke of a coffee cup like a shroud for support when I
set sail with my students aboard the Pequod
in search of white foam…

Inside the cup, still drama: a small dolphin
suspended in dive over a tiny jetty in the
muddy colored liquid, his dorsal fin my
caffeine measure
                             - Whale Vessel

And so, a splash/smash/crash-of-a-whale strike marks the spot! Further, this is where the wakeful, turbid water is. And further yet, it is the dark water of wake fullness (depth). The image of water's fluid capacity for expression morphs to paper in image doubling. The dorsal fin, via word, is both dolphin and whale incised upon tale, tail and fishmore than one!

It is precisely here I glimpse that images of fish-tales and fish-tails juxtapose. These phantasm set-up a metonymy of logos-eros exchange whose boundaries re-main images of landscape as somewhat inseparable. They blur and shift the shape of what becomes 'scene' and 'meaning' just below these poetic lines, remain a little out of time from poem to poem throughout the poetry volume.

The mirror of water, as the mirror of poem, ripples and distorts watery lines that sign between tail and fish and tale in tales. I begin to feel or imagine something more. I imagine the way the psyche of water itself may see, sees tales and tails from depths larger than any one single sense can matter in what means . The magic, silvery button of First Knife presses right here. The archetypal "first knife" of eternity comes "exploding out of hand." And, the skill of the poet reminds me it is the seminal potency of original language in images that have this power to "re" and "in" form the storied and living psyche, rendering it "sayable," although , not quite.

The mirror of water within the walled cup seems to ripple in harmonic with one aboard the classroom (scholar) ship; mirrors as well a shadowy shape met in the depths below these lines on paper. So that finally I can affirm, these lines of poetry are water lines. Through mimetics, poetic language upholds at once several poetic metaphor searching for Beauty’s appearance (white foam, white whale, white paper; the still drama of dark water, black lines, wounded words). Word as metaphor does this within the poem frame because it shadows the Pequod of other tales (and an/other fish’s tail, the whale’s) all along. Further along, the poet “will bring soap to make the water relative”…

…Who would dare inscribe
a figure in celestial blue ink…

Only a divine scribe might crack the
code of one’s early birth,
now withered, whose expiration
date has passed, whose worth
defies markings on a Lava Bar of soap…

We gather around the bar, our gold
doubloon in storage…
                      -Still Lava’s Cost

Hesiod begins the story of Beauty’s birth by telling the great agitation, deep longing, and violence in the act of mating and making. The turbulence clouds the presence of pleasure and splits a primal coupling asunder. Not only will Sky and Earth never unite in such a way again, but the rupture marks Beauty with a dark undertow because the red flow of this mating violence gives birth to three naturally forming currents of fearsome retribution (Erinyes), great Giants, and ash-tree nymphs or Meliai.

The fury of hammered fire can be found rewoven subtly throughout the body of this collected work. Using words like 'doubloon' (Still Lava’s Cost) and 'Moby Dick' (Lessons of a Fisher King) and phrases like “words are vessels that sink or swim toward the spasm of another life” (Lucretius and the Goddess) and “It shares with Ahab’s doomed voyage the same chips of a shattered ship” (Whale Vessel), Slattery weaves a remarkable peplos between times and time and timeless things. Even the term water line re-members Chapter Nine of Melville’s “whale-strike” for it is here the word, contained in a sermon regarding the biblical Jonah, is first used. [ii]

 In reference to Jonah aboard a ship where he has paid passage we learn he is, “…in the belly of the bunk sunk, too, beneath the ship’s waterline feeling the presentiments of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel’s.” In a moment like this, a little soap comes in handy!

Cultural mythologist, Maggie Macary continues telling the story of the birth of Aphrodite by noting a very important notion regarding image doubling in the myth. Foam is a mixture of masculine and feminine elements, she writes, air and water, respectively. Foam forms on the surface of water by violent agitation making Aphrodite a daughter born of love, desire and violence. Macary marks desire (himeros) as that turbulent current and twin of love, a current that most draws out and surfaces soul’s longing. She states

Eros and Himeros (desire) immediately attend to Aphrodite. This is appropriate since love and desire are the catalysts for her birth, prompting Ouranos’ need for Gaea and causing his castration. Eros is the unifying force of the universe, the “loosener of limbs” (Sappho) whose primal force creates the urge to mate and life to develop. Himeros is described as Eros’s double (Kereyni). Socrates speculates that the name Himeros or imeros has its etymological roots in dia ten esin tes roes, meaning the stream that most draws the soul. He distinguishes between longing or potos, meaning to long after that which is not there, and imeros, a violent attraction to the soul from what is seen (Plato, Cratylus) [iii]

This is an important distinction and brings me round once more to the first poem in this making of poetry, "First Knife". The soul of water tells me if you look from water’s point of view, the below-perspective will yield a necessary and subtle differencing via image doubling. The deeper twin is archetypal , softer in its shading. The difference matters to a certain harmonics of sexuality that lay in this language and seeks union with its woundedness before we ever have a story.

The Greek turning also reveals this difference in be-longing at work in the Himeros/violence/Eros of the water myth. This suggests how the soul of water mates and makes: it will shatter/sever/pierce, its surface 'skinned.' It divides itself in two (and many) to overcome itself. In strong attraction, this passionate soul-making (de) recomposes and reveals something of what it is to express fluidly this spirit of e-motions rising from its deeper plane of experience—not only in awareness, but also, a where-ness not exactly found somewhere... or how

Just to touch time
would make the air feel
like its mine

[i] Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) paints Venus Anadyomene in 1869. The painting currently resides in Darmstadt, Hessisches Landes Museum.

[ii] Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, editors. New York: Norton, 1967, p47

[iii]   See The Birth of Aphrodite: A Review of Greek Myth posted August 27, 2005.

About the Author: Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D., is currently Core Faculty in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. He is the author of over 200 articles and book reviews in newspapers, journals, magazines and chapters in books.

To purchase a copy of Just Below The Waterline click here.

To listen to a poem from this poetry volume click First Knife.

To purchase the CD, available for $11...(info forthcoming)

Other Books by Dennis Patrick Slattery: The Idiot: Dostoevsky's Fantastic Prince (Peter Lang, 1984); The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh (SUNY .Press, 2000); Casting the Shadows (Winchester Canyon Press, 2002); Depth Psychology: Meditations in the Field (Daimon-Verlag, 2001); Grace in the Desert: Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life (Jossey-Bass, 2004).
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