“Make black more precious than a rival’s crimson” challenges Eva Heisler in her brilliant collection of poetry, Drawing Water. Heisler’s language is simple; it is her imagery and syntax where her poetry comes to life. This book is an intersection between the written word and a painted picture. Heisler investigates the difficult task of drawing water as she attempts to capture objects constantly in motion. Her poems begin as conversations, descriptions of the mundane, but then burst with color, shedding light on the lesser-known gradients of life.
Heisler begins many of her poems by simply describing an image, and in other poems she slowly zips the words open centimeter by centimeter, allowing the reader a glimpse into the artist’s mind. The concept of lines appear in her poems frequently: “take the horizon line, for example, / a mirage– / that marks the limit of sight.” The horizon line is something to reach for, and yet, it “marks the limit of sight.” When it is reached, we have reached our full potential. Therefore, she spends her time “seeking the horizon line,” and yet she also writes in order to “resist the horizon / line—.” This in itself, explains the use of language in her poetry. She writes to readers, “I saw ‘negative space,’ / saw that triangle between the curve of a hip and an arm / another triangle between spread legs.” This poem is like a glimpse into her writing process. She sees the potential for art everywhere she looks. Language is poetry, a “blank slate” that can turn into a colorful landscape or a dark alley.
The imagery that Heisler uses conveys elements of poetry in life and the elements of life in poetry. Through repetition, Heisler is able to transform the tone of a single image. This shows the variety that one line can have. Heisler uses the images of dark and light to convey the same effect. She writes two strange descriptions of white: “When white is well managed, it ought to be strange” and “white is precious.” Nothing else can exist or should exist within white because white is “delicate.” Yet white is also dangerous, a “heathen space.” White is a place for rest because it is easy to exist within white; one knows that white is safe. Dark, on the other hand, is “uncertain,” but darkness is where one finds beauty:
In the darkness of ground there is the light of pebbles or dust;
in the darkness of foliage, the glitter of leaves;
in the darkness of flesh, transparency;
in that of a stone, granulation.
These images again, cross with the images of writing. Heisler fills the strange, white space with dark words. The darkness is never just one image. In one poem, the typed, written words that she has written can have one meaning and in another poem these words can transform completely. For instance, she starts four poems with “women stand in stocking feet,” and each poem ends differently. In the same way, periods and lines take on multiple meanings. Heisler is reinforcing the fact that a poem never simply has one meaning, just like a word never has one meaning. Depending on the sentence, a word can mean many different things.
The tone of her poetry is instructive and nostalgic. Heisler begs readers to look deeper. After all, one should never “do a stone” the same way, because a stone can be seen many ways: “…a stone may be round or angular, polished or rough, cracked / like an ill-gazed teacup, or as broad as the breast of a hero.” Heisler understands the rhythms that readers naturally fall into and then stops them short. In this way, she allows readers to witness the creation process, showing them that life can be seen from many angles, but also challenging readers to resist this simple glimpse of life. Look at every stone differently and appreciate them all.
Heisler does resist the horizon line. She dances around the white on the page with the brush strokes of a painter, allowing her words to fall where they may. Her language hints at a yearning for consistency and order, and yet her syntax is unusual and playful, showing her familiarity with disorder:
kneeling beneath a table
to cover the underside
with blue crayon
this was drawing was movement of the arm back
and forth across
pine board / no sky
no star / arm / back blue / forth blue
This is the retelling of a memory long past. She writes as if the memory is difficult to remember and she wants to get it on paper before it vanishes completely. Not all of her poetry is fractured in this way. She has other poems where she retells memories in paragraph form, almost like an essay. This variance in format allows the reader to see how the poem exists within her mind.
Reading Heisler’s poetry can be like taking a large gulp of air after a long run, refreshing and yet disorienting. The title, then, makes sense, for her poems flow like water. Sometimes they crash completely, bursting open at the reader, and other times they ebb and flow slowly, calmly. When one draws water, it will look different every time. In the same way, when one captures life in poetry it is always different. Heisler is able to capture this complexity through the variance in her syntax and the simple complexity of her imagery. It is poetry about the process of writing and poetry about the process of living.
Eva Heisler is a poet and an art critic. In 1997, she won a Fulbright award to study in Iceland, where she wrote her first book of poetry, Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic (2013). She has won The Nation’s Discovery Award and the Poetry Society of America’s Emily Dickinson Award. Her work has been published in CrazyHorse, Indiana Review, BOMB, and Poetry Northwest.