By Charles Rammelkamp
Without putting too much emphasis on the cleverness of the title, the words “muddying” and “holy” stand out as the labels of Chocolate Waters’ new collection. “Holy” is an apt description of her outlook, an almost spiritual, if comic and irreverent, voice that spins the narrative of her life; “muddying” certainly pinpoints the details of growing up in a dysfunctional family in the strangling conformity of a Republican small town, being the outsider everywhere, generally.
Muddying the Holy Waters is made up of two parts. “Impossible” is about an unrequited love affair with an unnamed woman. “I’d Rather Be a Toad,” subtitled “(the Curse and the Blessing of Mount Joy, PA),” is about her family, about growing up. Consisting of poems, essays and photographs (mostly in the second part, snapshots of her parents, siblings and herself), the collection is a retrospective of her life, as she enters her 70’s. Her goal in putting this collection together, she tells us in concluding essay, “The End is the Beginning – Muddying Your Own Holy Waters,” is to get to “the authentic bottom line of [my] life experiences,” to “explain how difficult it is for me to be vulnerable, to go beyond expressing my default reaction which is just to be majorly pissed off.”
“My life has been about rejection,” Waters writes in her introduction to “Impossible.” She also tells us about the origin of her name, the taunts of her classmates calling her “Choc-o-lotta Weirdo,” but also, living less than half an hour away from Hershey, named for “the religious racist chocolate magnate,” had something to do with it. (Spoiler alert: her parents named her Marianne, which I learned from reading the caption to a newspaper photograph of her as the Douglas High School spelling bee champion, in the second part.)
But rejection is at the heart of “Impossible,” in which she describes the evolution of her sexuality, from rejection by high school boys to eventually identifying as lesbian. She’s one of the first openly lesbian poets to publish in the United States, part of Second-wave feminism, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. First-wave feminism focused on voting and property rights; second-wave expanded the debate to include issues of sexuality, the workplace, and family.
As a front-line warrior, she experienced plenty of rejection. But this sequence focuses on a particular love interest that never developed the way she wanted. From poems like “Encounter #1” and “First Rush” (“longing to / ingest you / whole or / bit by bit”), in which her desire takes hold, to “Apology” and “Dirty Karma” she confesses her hopes, only to have them dashed in “Things I Won’t Have to Do (since I’ll never see you again)” and “Bang Bang” (“She shot me down / as I was talking on the phone / She shot me down as I was washing the dishes / as I was watching Netflix / as I was peeing”). The bitter reactions morph: “You Don’t Deserve Me” begins:
You know you don’t
The nights I howled over your rejection
What tossing me out the window did
Then, in the “Afterthoughts” section come the episodes of drunk dialing. The rejection still hurts.
The first section also contains a sometimes-funny, mostly sad series of poems about the dead animals in her life, from a favorite collie to her faithful cat Scruff-o (“for seven years he loved me”). We’ve all lost pets. Waters captures the heartbreak with real sensitivity.
The second section, “I’d Rather Be a Toad,” is by far the more affecting sequence, starting with the essay, “How Mount Joy Transformed Me into a Pisser Poet.” This section is all about her parents and siblings. If she is often unsentimental in her assessments of family members, she is always forgiving, affectionate. To her brother Bob she writes:
you are so terrified
pagan dyke poet telling my truth in a bar
as i am
telling yours in a church
Chocolate confesses her shortcomings as an older sibling, growing up in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, her impatience, but she concludes her short essay, “What Good Are Brothers?”: “So what good are brothers? More than I thought, more than I have the ability to say.”
But it’s the poems about her mother and father that cut the deepest. Her dad was a bigamist, a second family they only learned about later. He was also a real prick to his wife. They both essentially hated each other but stayed married. When her father died, Chocolate was heartbroken. He was her favorite. She writes in “waiting room”:
I was in the waiting room w/uncle billy
down on my knees in public
gasping so hard
my tears strangled me
praying to a god I didn’t believe in
About her mother, she is not so teary. Though she recognizes her mother was a victim, she still can’t quite forgive. In “pauline’s daughter” she writes,
it was impossible having you for a mom
no way you could have mothered wild-child
i ran more circles around you
than a venn diagram
but what was it like for you
left alone to parent four young children
abandoned by your husband
who preferred the company
of any woman but you
In “Mommie Dearest” she addresses Pauline who is lying in her coffin: “”What do I say to your dead body?” No breast-beating at this bedside.
The Mount Joy poems are bookended by the “Curse” poem – “I ran away / oh the freedom in escaping / the christian republican evangelists” – and the blessing:
two kinda of people live here
the ones who go to church and
the ones who go to the bar
had i stayed
i’d become a raging alcoholic
or a hallelujah
Chocolate Waters clarifies her muddied waters in this affecting collection, so we can see ourselves down there at the bottom as well.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Muddying-Holy-Waters-Chocolate/dp/0935060111
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.