Review of We Are Mostly Water, by Kristin George Bagdanov (Finishing Line Press, 2012).
In a culture intent on chatter and saying a little in a lot, Kristin George Bagdanov’s first chapbook, We Are Mostly Water, intentionally takes a different path. Terse and tight, Bagdanov’s poems employ lean and taut language and images, inviting readers into her own engagement with grief, pain, adventure, and more.
Throughout We Are Mostly Water, Bagdanov roots her exploration of grief and pain in images found in the natural world. The chapbook’s first poem, “Erosion,” describes a woman’s suffering in terms of “stream,” “canyon,” and “cliff”:
he sits next to me, rocking,
as disease carves through her
like a stream begets a canyon.
. . . . .
At night, she pulls
a sheet across her spine,
notched like a cliff
where many have felt their way.
These archetypal images not only deepen the experience of grief and pain, but also widen it to an experience shared by all humanity, past and present.
Vivid natural imagery appears again in the poem “How to Grieve”:
Balance a pebble
on your tongue.
Press lip to lip
and hold it there inside.
From here, she encourages her readers to “Open wide / your mouth and notice / how little the gray / has worn,” “let that stone fall / from you,” and “Run your tongue / across your teeth / and feel / the hollow / left behind.” All of this sets up the final stanza—perhaps the strongest and most moving in the collection:
Learn the new shape
how food and drink hesitate,
how even the thinnest laugh
to be hewn.
With this simple, natural image of a pebble, Bagdanov keenly illuminates the subtle, yet lingering and pervasive effects of human distress. It should also be noted that form accurately matches content in “How to Grieve,” as the sparse, streamlined layout of the words on the page seems fitting, given the subject matter.
The theme of adventure also surfaces in We Are Mostly Water, most notably in “A Letter to Leah in England.” The poem’s opening lines explicitly state this nagging hunger for adventure and exploration:
Our purpose was simple: to open ourselves
as wide as the Utah sky, learn the wild
bearing of the Colorado river, find the divine
inside each person. . . .
A few stanzas later, Bagdanov continues to engage this theme:
At the Grand Canyon we rushed to the edge
of the storm and let ourselves be drenched
in vastness. I can’t speak for you,
but my soul also yearns to be that big.
Here, we again see Bagdanov using natural images—such as “the storm” and “drenched / in vastness”—to uniquely describe this yearning for adventure and growth.
Bagdanov is at her best when, with distilled and lean language, she employs images from the natural world to add nuance and depth to her observations and experiences. The strongest poems in We Are Mostly Water—“Erosion,” “How to Grieve,” “Cut Hair,” “Come Clean,” and “Holding Light”—all do this well, beckoning readers to return again and again to these poems in search of all that they might offer.
For her first collection of poetry, Bagdanov has, on the whole, most certainly succeeded. I sincerely look forward to watching her continue to deepen and develop her understanding of the act of making poems.