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Gods of Water and Air
Rachel Dacus
Aldrich Press
ISBN-13: 978-0615842417

Reviewer: Ann Wehrman

          In her latest volume of poetry, Gods of Water and Air, Rachel Dacus offers a charmingly personal collection combining poetry, a memoir essay, and a one-act play. Born in New York, Dacus grew up in California and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a fundraising consultant as well as a writer. Her bio on her website notes that she “majored in English, French Literature, and counterculture at the University of California at Berkeley during the interesting 1960s.” Counterculture might or might not have been a formal degree program at Berkeley in the 1960s, but one understands a bit of Dacus’s free-spirited nature from that statement. Dacus has been writing since young adulthood and publishing since her college days; she is well known and widely published, releasing two previous poetry collections, Femme au Chapeau (2005) and Earth Lessons (1998).

          In Gods of Water and Air, the humor and irreverence of a 1960’s rebel mix with feminist, expressionist, and lyrical motifs as the author openly explores her feelings, relationships, and spiritual musings. Inheriting her late painter father’s artistic eye, Dacus paints with words. Her writing can be indirect and slant, but is always transparent, clear, and immediate, eschewing the often impenetrable poetic structures one frequently finds elsewhere.

          Dacus’s reflections range widely, leavened by tactile imagery of California’s mountainous and desert landscapes, as well as the San Pedro streets and fishing docks. In “Taken,” for example, she writes,

I was especially taken  
with the grasses today, their herringbone  
weaves and golds, purples, and greens,  
the seed pods floating  
like butterflies on tall stems.

          In “San Pedro Trilogy,” the immigrant fishing community shows its face and fears, its tie to the often-brutal sea on which economic survival depends:

Widows like lighthouse beacons
with no answering ship.
Old Croat women with black buns
behind square faces staring
grim as garden gnomes
from porches as we children skate by.

Ears studded with fire-opals
or tiny crosses, these matriarchs
nailed to their many losses.

          Dacus writes of her relationships: with her partner, mother, beloved late dog; and in a series of poems, her late father, a painter whose studio she inherited after he passed away following a struggle with Alzheimer’s, the effects of which Dacus pours into poems such as “At the Easel with Alzheimer’s”:

                                            …The pall
on his memory has not dimmed his bad taste

in jokes or how at the easel he’s always affable
over the scribble of boar’s bristle, the give
of canvas to brush. I skip over laughable
lapses, as when he asks me where I live

and then pretends he was kidding….

          Although Dacus devotes many of the poems in Gods of Water and Air to exploring relationships with her loved ones, she also explores her relationship with herself. The book opens with the transcendent “Flight,” which reads,

I woke up this morning and you  
looked a lot like me: my shoes,  
my hair, my eyes looking out of yours   
in the mirror. My earrings dangled
from your lobes. Good morning, darling,
I said….

The poem moves through the author’s reunion with herself and spiritual resurrection, resolving triumphantly:

             …We are now me.
You disappeared and we are light
enough to soar
in a curve like a bridge
spanning the bay, like a woman
in ecstasy arching her back.

          The magnificent, forthright image alluding to a “woman in ecstasy” contrasts with and yet somehow resembles the feminine taken to the level of spiritual lore in the book’s cover, featuring a photo of what the book’s copyright page describes as a “Hand-painted papyrus of Nut, the goddess of the sky, in the Ennead of Egyptian mythology. She was seen as a star-covered nude woman arching over the earth”—and indeed, the cover image shows just that, a beautiful goddess in an extended forward fold, humanity occurring under the long, star-studded reach of her belly.

          The self-awareness and self-love that infuse these poems speak of Dacus’s maturity, which is also shown by her confidence in combining this collection of poems with a poignant, bittersweet memoir essay of her experience training in ballet as a young girl, along with a whimsical one-act play about reincarnation, with dogs as the main characters—a tongue-in-cheek, warm-hearted tribute to her late canine companion, also remembered in “Kisses,” “Night Touches,” and “Wash Death Away.” These lines from “Night Touches” convey divine spiritual comfort and healing:

There is not an inch of her I won’t miss,

And now when I wake in the night
sobbing for her loss, I feel soothed
by the smooth, still pillow,
I can’t explain this touch except as a body
without a body, an airy silk that speaks
as a dog never can, in words
clear and distinct: I am. Touch the air,
touch your own chest, feel love’s silk, and sleep.

          Other powerful poems in this collection include “Monet at Pourville”—“He hasn’t yet gone into the world of mist,/ but an evanescence is growing. I’m mad/ about the sea, he writes.”—and this reviewer’s favorite, “Chewing on Jew”:

When I go, it will be with Chagall’s angel,
the one that hangs over the couch,
floating on teardrop wings.  
Her candelabra keeps away
the midnight forest
that lives behind my eye,
that deep shade
the sun can never erase.

                                       …Not so much
to live for: twilight-to-dawn hunger,
hugging the dark for a pillow.
Chewing on the word Jew
and how it now meant animal.

          With Gods of Water and Air, Rachel Dacus touches the depths of her own and others’ sorrow and rises to both personal and collective ecstasy; sharing a hard-won wisdom, that resurrection continues, that the invisible spirit lives—the very spirit that flows through her poems, eulogizing and elegizing her late father and pet, communing with Monet, the goddess Nut, and Chagall’s angel.

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