Review: Quench, by Amy Orazio CW Books, 2018, 101 pp. $15.95
by Nancy E Wright
Quench, by Amy Orazio, exposes, examines, and ultimately slakes the thirst of longing at first drop by drop, then with increasingly steadier flow, though never to the point of saturation. This collection, the poet’s first, guides the reader through distinct and disparate spaces—desert, city, harbor, and headwater—from the reader’s spiritual aridity to enlightenment through recognition and acceptance of the inseparability of body and spirit.
Following the Table of Contents but prior to the first poem is the poem, “Stone Would be Water,” by Samuel Menashe, the final five lines of which are:
Who makes fountains
Spring from flint
Who dares tell
There’s a well
Quench is the well of which Orazio dares to tell us. Four sections comprise the collection: they are “Desert,” “City,” “Harbor,” and “Headwater.” In all sections the poems consist of relatively short lines, with the majority of the poems no more than one strophe. The effect is to suspend the reader between yearning and fulfillment, and most of all to recognize the depths and details of that yearning with each poem. “Exit Scene,” the first poem of the section “Desert,” and of the collection, speaks of a place “Where the amber sings to dark/ darkness rings,” thus initiating the reader’s pilgrimage at nightfall rather than at the more predictable sunrise. The third poem, “By This I Mean,” echoes Menashe’s stones in the aforementioned poem with the statement “stones do right/ before seeing, asking/ help and what/are you thirsty for?” The poems, “Early Ash” and “Miracle,” that follow refer respectively to Good Friday and Passover, the latter with the line, “I read Exodus by George Oppen. So I was hoping to see.” Yet another biblical reference occurs in “Past the Brook,” the second strophe of which states:
The widow has her own song
she is setting supper
but her bread is gone
can you pray for oil?
The final strophe, however, reverses the scenario with the statement, “I need oil to pray/ to unearth these desert tricks.” As the reader nears the end of the first section, these lines evoke the words of the Old Testament prophet Elijah to the widow that the oil will not run out until God sends rain; at the same time, the desert—and metaphorically the desert of one’s yearning—replaces the prayer for oil with the need for oil as a prerequisite to prayer. Thus the poem’s speaker dares to question—indeed perhaps even to deny—the power of faith in the absence of evidence. For the speaker, proof is the prerequisite to belief. Yet so often proof itself is elusive, hence those who yearn for it remain thirsty.
“Of Angels,” the opening poem of the second section, “City,” contrasts sharply with the introduction to “Desert.” Instead of nightfall, a “circle of light” carries the speaker to the aqueduct, to an artificial channel for transporting water, which the speaker needs in order to survive. Then,
I asked for this shroud
for this city in me
to be laid bare.
Succeeding poems-- “Is Thirsting Seeing,” in which the last line is ‘the new son sings,” “Incarnate,” and “Transfigure,” speak of birth and renewal in process, and of hope, as expressed in “Sink:”
when the sun sinks low
bruising the sky
can be a troubling word
I still believe in it though
who wear faces
Seeing beauty certainly can quench our own thirst for it; yet beauty and pain are so often companions, like the sun setting on a day with so much yet unfinished, with so many still thirsty.
“Harbor,” the shortest of the four sections, brings the reader closer to sources of actual and spiritual water with poems such as “Cargo,” “Reservoir,” “Rinse,” and “Remain,” with the last of these stating “There is a jar where I keep the sea/ when it shuts off its sounds.” Still, the ultimate arrival at the proverbial well occurs, if it occurs at all, only in the final section, “Headwater,” and only when loss opens space, as spoken in the section’s opening poem, “Thin Places:”
C-shaped section of a river
makes room for
what happens at the water’s side.”
If a headwater is a tributary portion of a river close to its source, then the beginning of quenching spiritual thirst is the space created by undoing, expressed in the section’s poems such as “Unhinge,” and “In Between,” which ends with the lines “How good does it feel / to unsee.”
Moreover, just as in the previous section the speaker needs oil in order to pray, in “There You Are,” the speaker is able to recognize that for which she thirsts only when she is able to drink. The spiritual thirst is inextricably at one with the body, as espoused in “Water to Live Water to Die,” “Except that--/ this is not a metaphysical choice / this is gut.” Ultimately, as the “Ripening,” the last poem in the collection states, “water is the prayer/ ready enough to be sung.”
Throughout the collection the sparseness of lines and the near absence of punctuation give the reader simultaneous clarity and confusion. Images of “magnets in green-violet ears / hover where north and east / are unzipped as a ribcage” (“Faults Are Present”), “six wings black against a sherbet sky” (“Backlit,”), “Sunday’s head is heavy / already leathering” (“Sabbath), and “The stars are drowning too / a deep hum at midnight / thick on our tongues:” (“In Between”) engage the senses; yet the pictures are neither clear nor situated in context. Rather than analyze to understand, however, the structure of these poems somehow invites—indeed almost compels---the reader to release understanding and instead journey deeply into the caverns of one’s own longings and, once exploring that emptiness, find the path to filling the vacuum. Nevertheless, unlike some poetry that seeks to satisfy, Quench dares not satiate completely, but rather leaves that task to the reader. Yet the poet reminds us that this freedom, this autonomy the reader has to quench or not to quench, is an innate part of the inevitable continuum of longing, simply by virtue of the fact that we are human, and that we are body and spirit inextricably joined. Thus this inevitable, inescapable thirst itself becomes the source of its own quenching.