Review of Drawing Water by Eva Heisler
Buffalo, New York: Noctuary Press, 2013. 58 pp. $14.00. paper.
Eva Heisler's work as an art critic and poet examines creative process, concept, and perception, with her investigations of these subjects appearing over the years in numerous articles, interviews, and in verse. Heisler's recent book Drawing Water, from Noctuary Press, likewise makes a study of those artistic essentials, this time in the long poem form. But with its lyrical observances, meditative prose poetry, reminiscences, instructions, textual borrowings, and dream-like narrative sequences, this new study does not just examine ideas about, say, figure-ground relationship and perceptual realization; it enacts them, as the text and white space keep calling attention to each other, for instance, or as the author delivers a clever pun, deploying semantic ambiguity without a drop of preciousness. Indeed, the relationship between the book's title and its content asks the reader to rethink perception and boundary, as within the first few pages the reader needs to reconsider multiple meanings of "drawing" when applied to water.
Heisler calls the concept of boundary into question both visually and textually. Consider the book's opening lines which appear flush right at the top of the page, followed by ample white space at the bottom:
take the horizon line, for example
a mirage —
that marks the limit of sight.
Turn the page and Heisler's speaker observes
I spend much of my writing time seeking the horizon
line. I know that there is no such line but I see the line
when I look up from small blocks of text and squint at
the sea. To write prose poems is to resist the horizon
Here too the text is spare and the white space ample, an important feature in the overall design of Drawing Water, suggesting that the work is conscious of its own being as both literary and visual artifact. As if to affirm what the reader has intuited about the function of white space, Heisler later writes
but when white is well managed, it ought to be strange—tender as
well as bright—like white roses washed in milk. The eye ought to seek
the white for rest, brilliant though it may be; and to feel it as heathen
among a flushing of reds.
If Drawing Water feels at times like a sort of instructional manual or a manifesto on drawing or perception, that is no accident. The poet acknowledges that her work here borrows extensively from John Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing in Three Letters to Beginners. Heisler's speaker encourages the reader to
Try to fill in that square with crossed lines, so
completely and evenly that it looks like a patch of gray
silk cut and laid on white paper.
and later advises
Anything you find ugly is good to draw.
Do not draw things that you love.
If Drawing Water also feels a bit like a fragmented collection of critical assessments, that too is in keeping with its inquiry into perception, process, and form. According to Heisler, the book evolved from a series of notebook entries made over five months, which appeared as art criticism in Icelandic translations in 2005. These critical observations are synthesized into the lyrical/instructive voice of the poem, and at times demonstrate how the practice of visual art and poetry can fuse through association:
The line break is hesitation or resistance or acquiescence
or a tiny rip in the mesh of a screen door.
Lines may multiply as cracks across the surface of an old painting
or lines may measure and slice like a butcher's cleaver.
Portions of the text also suggest elements of kunstlerroman, with the speaker recounting moments of perceptual realization, or narrating an understanding of creative process:
I saw negative space
saw that triangle between the curve of a hip and an arm
another triangle between spread legs
I drew the contours of an emptiness and a body emerged
the world was charged with negative space
spatula-bearing body was an interruption in negative space
my sister, working the cherry pitter,
was a wheezing rupture in negative space
In another instance, the author catalogues what has been learned from studying "black" in masterworks, mentioning Goya, Manet, and others, saying
What I learned from Matisse's black—
to creep downstairs in the middle of the night and exchange blue silk for
What I learned from Reinhardt's black—
that the black is not black but yellow and sometimes purple.
She concludes the catalogue with the following phrase, which appears alone at the top of the next page, followed by wry use of well-managed white space:
What I learned from Dickinson's black—
But the art of Drawing Water is not simply textual or visual; the poem's musicality shapes its expressive elegance as well. Heisler's verses are threaded with repetitions, with echoes and refrains; lines are broken, spaced, rebroken and respaced until the language resonates, sonically and visually. On one page we see
Women stand in stocking feet;
and on the next page we find
each dip in water
a cake of Prussian blue.
Women stand in stocking feet;
These stocking-footed women are echoes of others who appear earlier in the text:
each rubs a cake of Prussian blue
on a white saucer
until the color is dark and thick and oily-looking.
Women stand in stocking feet; each read aloud a different poem at the same
This musical aspect of Heisler's long poem creates a strong sense of coherence, which can be especially important in a work of this scope. Interestingly, as the book draws to its conclusion, that music becomes more subdued, trailing off with sparse, single sentence admonishments appearing in solitary lines atop an expanse of white space, rather like the final notes of a musical piece echoing across a landscape. Some readers may find this finish unsatisfying, but it seems in keeping with the project's spirit and aesthetic.
Drawing Water is a compelling piece; its musicality is just one feature that draws the reader through the text. Vibrant imagery, evocative diction, thoughtful conceptual work, a touch of humor, and a strong, clear voice make reading Heisler's work a welcome challenge and a pleasure.
Leslie LaChance teaches writing and literature at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Her poems have appeared in Quiddity, Birmingham Poetry Review, Juked, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, How She Got That Way, is forthcoming from Toadlily Press in fall 2013. She is the editor of Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration.