by Rhonda Pettit
Finishing Line Press, 2013ISBN: 9781622293933
I first met Rhonda Pettit at a monthly meeting of the Greater Cincinnati Writers League where she served as the poetry critic for the evening. She spoke of our poems in intuitive and comprehensive ways, posing questions that invited the poets to think about ways to deepen them. We both grew up and continue to live in Northern Kentucky, where we sometimes see each other at poetry readings, workshops, and writing retreats.—Karen L. George
Rhonda Pettit, Ph.D., is a poet, scholar, and amateur musician who teaches writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, where she is also editor of the Blue Ash Review. In addition to her chapbook Fetal Waters, and poetic drama The Global Lovers, she has published poems in online and print publications across the U.S. Currently at work on two manuscripts and a series of collages, she has been awarded writing fellowships to Hambidge Center, Hedgebrook, Hopscotch House, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her scholarship includes two books on the poetry and fiction of Dorothy Parker (A Gendered Collision and The Critical Waltz), and articles about a range of poets and poems. She also served as a poetry editor for both volumes of the Aunt Lute Anthology of U. S. Women Writers.
Review of Rhonda Pettit's Fetal Waters
The poems in Rhonda Pettit's poetry chapbook, Fetal Waters, examine personal memory within
Water in its many forms, literal and metaphorical, permeates Fetal Waters, beginning with the opening whimsical poem, "Cirrus." Pettit selects her words with great care, creating repeated vowel and consonant sounds that result in lilting internal rhyme that invites the reader into her way of looking at and thinking about the world around her. The imagery and soft sounds are hypnotizing:
snips from a pale spoola silver stitch
lisp of a faint directiona whim, a wink
a willowing hushbuss on a blue cheek
Even the poem's form mimics the lightness of the subject—couplets of short lines not reaching halfway across the page. The poet draws us into this first poem, and thus the whole book, by the intimacy she achieves through her use of the second person: "Even your name is a whisper / your lightness less // than a feather." The line near the center of the poem, "a wisp of gathering to come," spoke to me of possibilities—"gathering" literal and symbolic, as in the opportunity for life, the very beginnings of life, especially in view of what follows it—the second and title poem, "Fetal Waters," in which the poem's persona imagines being a fetus, floating in the amniotic waters. "Fetal Waters," is also written in couplets (only three) with short lines. Here is the poem in its entirety:
A keen sense of fulfilling,but no waves for now.
It is quiet, it is calm,little bones
a stone's toss awayfrom pony time.
The internal rhyme of "bones" "stone's" adds power to the poem, a sense of momentum building. The theme of possibility from the first poem is echoed here as well, succinctly and evocatively, in the line "A keen sense of fulfilling" and "pony time," referencing the impending birth and all there is to unfold in that new life over time. But don't be deceived into thinking all the poems are going to be "quiet" and "calm." The subject matter and tension deepens and darkens the further in we go, as if walking into a swimming pool from the shallow into the deep end. The poet suggests that in the phrase "but no waves for now." The "for now" subtly and yet powerfully hints that there will be waves in the future.
These waves are introduced in the third poem of the chapbook, "Baptism," where the ideas of belief and trust and being part of a congregation are pondered and questioned. The poem opens with the lines:
She knew she was supposed to believein something, but what other than
the wetness ascending her legs?
That the minister's grip could be
trusted? That salvation would not
have its sting?
The above lines introduce us to the poet and/or the poems' personas' questioning what they observe, what they are expected to believe and blindly accept, as seen in the following lines of "Baptism":
...Close your eyes,he whispered, tilting her back and down,
but she left them open to see the face
of God. It blurred into anger and
absence as she rose, a wave crashing
on a shore of air, the congregation
mute and obedient as angels.
This poem also uses contrasting words, images, and ideas, as many of the poems do, creating a sense of life's duality. In this poem she pairs "salvation" and "sting," "open" and "closed," uncertainty and blind faith. This image of keeping her eyes open echoes throughout the poems in examining the world in which she lives. In the poem "Avenues" it's seen in the ending lines "Almost religious / what we don't know."
The central eight poems in "Fetal Waters" deal with racism centered on a segregated swimming pool. In the poem "1963," Pettit effectively repeats the line "what did I know?" as she observes the Negro boy her own age (eight) who was "not allowed in," who she says "watched from the other side / of the swimming pool fence...topped with barbed wire."
The poem's ending image of "the sun / glaring from water and concrete, / blinding us all" is an effective image that mirrors the unwillingness of people at that time to see the truth, either actively endorsing or blindly following segregation and racist beliefs and attitudes. This image of blindness brought me back to the poem "Baptism" in which the poet's eyes are open, and the irony of those baptismal waters washing away sin, and the suggestion that these swimming pool waters need to be kept uncontaminated.
This duality of who is allowed in and who is kept out, via the image of the barbed wire fence continues in the next poem, "The Steps," in which Pettit writes: "Your parents had paid for the key / that unlocked the gate and let you / in." She effectively uses contrasting imagery to describe the fence:...When you slammed the gate shut,
it rattled the chain-link fence into song,
a peeling of flat, airy bells, and wobbled
the barbed wire above it, a tone
too low to be heard.
The image of the fence creating a high lovely sound ("like bells") rubs up against the image of the barbed wire on top of the fence emitting "a tone too low to be heard," which results in a tension that runs through this and the other poems in the sequence.
She describes entering the "whites-only pool":Heads would rise to see
if you belonged here—a heaven of water
in the midsummer hell of the sixties,
ghettos and streets and lives on fire,
America's racial napalm
everywhere but here.
You belonged here,wading in water you knew
to be pure...
Again the poet uses contrasting images of "heaven" and "hell," "water" and "fire" to represent the divide between her protected world in the "whites-only pool" and the riots going on. Again, she suggests the idea of the pool's water being uncontaminated, "pure" because only whites were allowed in. The phrase "You belonged here" is repeated three times almost like an incantation, or as if the poet is trying to convince herself of the fact and the correlating one—that blacks didn't belong there. How ironic it is that while she's swimming in this "whites-only pool" she hears the song "Ball of Confusion" on the radio. The song is not only sung by black singers, but it contains lines about people's actions due to "the color of their skin." I get a sense that the song's title reflects the young girl's state of mind concerning the issue of segregation.
In the poem "Swim Lessons" boundaries and the idea of what divides us is presented as the "rope dividing heaven from hell" — the shallow water from the deep end. She and the others learning to swim must venture over the border:
To cross it and our fear of beingsucked down to oblivion, we'd have to
survive immersion, allow ourselves to be
surrounded by substance both like us
The above lines work on the literal level of the girl's swim lessons, but they also, in the context of the other poems in this sequence, speak of the future—in particular of when segregation will no longer be legal, but many other crossings of symbolic borders and being "immersed" and "surrounded" by unfamiliar situations she must discover her own way through. This poem where she is compelled to trust the lifeguard calls to mind the earlier poem "Baptism" (another immersion) where she wonders if "the minister's grip could be / trusted?"
The poem "The Night Swimmers" is a persona poem, written in the opposing collective point-of-view of an anonymous "we" who the reader quickly realizes are black kids who wait until night, when the whites-only pool is closed, to sneak into it. The barbed wire fence they climb over is described as: "each barb a star, / a stick-angel guarding heaven." The poem continues with the following lines:
...Into the waterwe ease, the water saying nothing, giving way,
refusing to give us away...
These lines so beautifully portray "the heaven" of being in the water, this "privilege" that they're immersing themselves into. The exquisite image of "the water saying nothing" and water "giving way," suggests that this water (and all that water symbolizes—birth, life, purity, wholeness, etc) is indeed meant for everyone.
In the last two poems of the sequence, "The Fill" and "The Fence," the pool is "filled in...bulldozed and backhoed, / pounded and busted, shoved and hauled." The poet ends "The Fill" by saying that with the debris was buried:
the woods on either side and behindthe silence of the night swimmers
the joy, the fear, the holding on
the conversations never held
the questions never asked
the desire for order
the one way
in and out:
all,all part of the fill.
The form of the above lines creates the image of things being sucked into a vortex which suggests the image created in the poem "The Steps" by the mention of the song "Ball of Confusion." It feels as if the poem is a lament for not only the poet's personal history (her memories) being buried, but that time in history as well.
In the last poem of the sequence "The Fence," she describes the fence as being "like bones, / like the skeleton of memory," that it "bore the weight of bodies / kept in, kept out." This duality and the image of borders that divide us is echoed in the later lines: "For twenty years it [the fence] had whispered / yes and no, black and white." The poem and the sequence end with an intriguing reversal in the following two stanzas:
Now we can't walkon what once was water
without risking a twisted ankle
in a sinkhole.
We must walkheads bowed, eyes down,
as if we didn't belong there.
Now, even the "whites" have lost their privilege, as it were, to swim in the water. Now they no longer belong. The last two lines, while working on a literal level of keeping their gaze down so as not to stumble, can also be seen to infer a sense of shame ("heads bowed, eyes down") for the part played in belonging to the segregated pool.
Several of the poems delve into the issue of sex slavery. In "O, Fledgling" Pettit laments over the fact that there are "girls sold // because they are ten ten ten / here and // elsewhere." The repetition in the phrase "ten ten ten" effectively emphasizes the poet's incredulity and outrage. "Enfant Terrible," a haunting persona poem written from the point-of-view of a woman forced to work in a brothel, opens with the stanza:
After their bodies,one by sweaty one,
collapse onto mine in the brothel, they walk away
mistaking relief for freedom.
The poet creates this woman's powerful response to these men and the life she was forced into living by the woman imagining she has impregnated these men:
They do not know
they must mother me now.
I have made these men pregnant
with their secret.
they carry like a nine-pound fetus—
Pettit creates a potent image of reversal in the lines above, giving us a chilling sense of this woman's imagined power, her anger, her need for revenge—which heightens our perception of her underlying sadness and desperation.
Pettit delves into the violence of war in several poems, such as "Instruments of War" where she describes a newspaper photograph of a guitar among the dead at a battle scene. She asks the chilling question:
Which one of the deadwas the soldier troubadour
who might have sung of love and beauty
and justice, all the same note? How many
had he killed in spite of this
before an ambush found
In the poem "O, Fledgling" she laments "child soldiers, mutilated women;" in "Mother the Stranger" a man once loved "left the city for war / whose bones make soil / for the desert;" and in "The Transposition Blues" there are unsettling images of "The child who lost/ an arm carries a rifle" and "In the mass grave / a blue shirt on bones."
Pettit encapsulates one of the overriding sensibilities of this collection—a sense of incomprehension, helplessness, and compassion in view of things she terms as "the earth's sadnesses" in the moving elegy "O, Fledgling." She finds a dead bird near her porch, which dredges up the many other sadnesses we're faced with in this world. The poem ends with the following haunting couplets:
...I might have putthe lost
one in its nest, but late, I went
instead, running and responsible.Grounded.
O, Ovid. O, Bruehel. O, Auden. O,mean life.
One of the many things I admire is the way Pettit uses words to suggest several meanings, such as in her above use of the word "running," which literally means she's hurrying to get to work, but it also suggests that she is "running" from the reality of this "lost one," and the realization plus frustration that she can do so little about it or the other sadnesses in this world. She does the same thing with the word "Grounded," emphasizing the word "responsible" on the line before it—the narrator telling herself that she is only being a well-balanced, sensible person—and yet the other meaning of "grounded," as in "an airplane is grounded" gives us the sense of the opposite of "running," of being put out of action, which mirrors the image of the fledgling brought down.
Besides poems in Fetal Waters resonating with each other through the imagery of water, many also connect through Pettit's imagery of the natural world. In "The Calling" she lyrically describes the way mountains change and are preserved: "Mathematical and mystical, /they ride the plates, thrust and erode from within, / sending boulder, cobble, gravel downstream and seaward / until I think they are gone, confusing / their presence with memory." And later, she dedicates a poem to a housefly, something most people deem innocuous. In "Musca domestica" she returns to the theme of life 's duality, speaking of the house fly's "invisible feculent trails" and yet also describes it as "small, dark, so distinct and delicate / you almost look clean," and says, "I envy / the authority // with which you land, / observing the mute, minute particulars, / taking the world on your own terms."
The collection ends with the beautiful and wise poem "Something about Us," where Pettit describes one Queen Anne's Lace flowering along a highway, using it as an image mirroring ourselves. She asks:
How did it survive the blade,or did the mower loop around it
nearly grinning? Or is it the first
to return, uncowed, inspired by the violence
used to tidy the land? It knows
something about us.
Again, in the lines above there is the element of duality, of seemingly incongruous elements—this Queen Anne's Lace flourishing "amid concrete and asphalt, steel / and carbon monoxide," portrayed as not only "uncowed," but "inspired by the violence / used to tidy the land."
The poem and the collection end with:
... its tinyclustered blossoms open
where looking outis looking in.
What power lies in her suggestion that one lone flower can "open / my window," which creates the image of the poet opening her window to look more closely at the Queen Anne's Lace, but also that one small object can open us, deepen our awareness to the power of beauty and growth and resilience, and the reminder that we, too, are tough, that we too can hopefully survive the world's violence. The ending image of this window, again one of duality, "where looking out / is looking in," establishes our connection to the natural world, and suggests the idea of mirroring—of examining what we see in the world and reflecting on it—in effect, coming to a place of balance. This "looking out" and "looking in" also echoes the repeated themes of inclusion and exclusion of the segregated pool series of poems central to the book.
Rhonda Pettit's chapbook, Fetal Waters, swims with beauty and violence as she seamlessly blends her personal memories and other personas' imagined experiences into the historical events of her time, naming the world's inequalities and injustices, but always with compassion and clarity. These poems vibrate with tenderness and tension—the friction between how we connect and disconnect as people—and a keen sense of yearning for what we've lost, what we might yet hold, and what we will perhaps discover in ourselves and our world.
Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), and The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press, 2015). You can find her work in Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Wind, Permafrost, qarrtsiluni, and Still. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/.