Devil’s Lake


Derrick Austin: Trouble the Water

The debut poetry book has, since perhaps W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle, become of its own a sub-genre: the art of declaring oneself, of revealing one’s influences as much as subverting those influences into a new and vibrant hybrid. In a year of truly stunning debuts, especially from other queer men (such as Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Rickey Laurentiis’ Boy with Thorn, Richie Hofmann’s Second Empire, and Phillip B. William’s Thief in the Interior), Derrick Austin holds his own through the splicing and melding of his many poetic selves.

In Trouble the Water, Austin wears his influences by riding the seam between imitation and innovation. He unapologetically comes as much from James Merrill’s ornate and elegant lyricism and Carl Phillip’s syntactically destabilizing pastorals as he does from Frank O’Hara’s cheeky canonization of pop iconography. “I’ve sashayed into your life from another time,” he writes in “O.P.U.L.E.N.C.E.,” a poem taking its title and epigraph from the queer cult documentary, Paris is Burning. One cannot write about Trouble the Water without first acknowledging the role classical figures and landscapes (Caravaggio, St. Sebastian, the architecture of Venice, the forest setting of ”Song of Songs”) play in his work. However, Austin does not write in a vacuum. It would be, by this point, too easy and too tired to rely on lyrical depictions of art or nature as metaphorical enactments of the body’s desires, and what buoys this collection, and where it gets its energy, comes from these moments where voices and issues of the 21st century tear through the more delicate fabric of these poems. I am grateful, as an example, for the respite a poem like “Torch Song” provides us (“They call me Ma’am here, in The Sunset Lounge”) to break open the more ornate, lyrically-wrought gazing into which some of his poems fall.

If this entire book could be consolidated and condensed into a single piece, it would be his lyrical sequence “Sans Souci,” a movement of six sections, in which the odd sections depicting classical art are immediately juxtaposed by the transformation of an erotic relationship in the even sections. In this suite, painted halos of saints are transformed into cock rings, and one section’s final line (“Only darkness in the painting, // the body’s inmost color”) is contrasted by the next section’s opening (“I believe in art more often than your cock”). Such pairing of contrasts occurs throughout the book and is what gives Trouble the Water its life and spark.

Like many debut books, there is a range of received poetic forms here. While I found some of the sonnets and sonnet-like poems to often teeter toward preciousness, it is in his sestina “Blaxploitation” and his villanelle “‘Summertime’” that we see Austin’s power and formal flexibility. In the latter, opening a section of poems responding to the Deepwater Spill affecting the American South, Austin weaves together ideas of ecological disaster, self-identity, aging, genealogy, and southern landscape in a way brought beautifully to life by the Villanelle’s tightly repetitious form. It begins:

“A pipe burst somewhere. The record kept turning
Porgy and Bess. Grandad sang the old blues tune.
I told him my name. The water was burning
when we went to the coast, green and churning
like collards in the kitchen.”
In this poem, Austin melds the various aspects and concerns of his work we see in other parts of the book together in a grounded and unportentous way. The other poem I mentioned, “Blaxploitation,” a sestina in which every line ends with “Black,” is so raw and inventive, it is easily the standout poem that will dominate the conversation about this collection:

“… but I’m right here, still whole (Black
don’t crack), and he (Once you go black …)
got off just fine.”

Part pastoral, part ekphrasis, part witness, part eco-poetics, part queer pop culture—it is too easy to say that Austin’s poems live inside the elastic tension between high and low art, between religious devotion and queer desire; it is too easy to say that Austin contains multitudes. At times, Trouble the Water reads like four definitive chapbook-length projects, but it is his insistence throughout the book on art’s ability to reveal rather than salve, his insistence on the corporal holiness of the body, even (especially) a queer body, in a socially puritanical world, that allows these varied poems to converse with each other and ultimately complicate each other. Trouble the Water is a rich and rewarding collection.

Derrick Austin
Trouble the Water
BOA Editions Ltd., 2016