Review of Savannah Slone’s poetry chapbook Hearing the Underwater, available now through Finishing Line Press.
By Melinda Ruth, Poetry Editor
In Hearing the Underwater, Savannah Slone’s first chapbook, the speaker invites you to immerse yourself with her, to linger and listen to what the water tells you. In this collection, sound is synonymous with submersion, and concerned with the truth beneath the surface. Each poem is a key to unlocking the reflective power of water in the world and in the body of the speaker.
We begin with leaving.
In the opening poem, “Venal Exodus,” or the corrupt evacuation, we are splashed with sharp sounds from the first lines, “Chalkboard paint. Bruises. / The Midnight Cousin,” and “Three sizzling ticks, pulled/ loose,” sounds that amp our adrenaline with the speaker’s to ride the fast pace of growing up in a broken home where everything ends, but also begins.
In this poem we are shown the underhanded leaving of the mother’s boyfriend in the lines, “Bang./ Mom’s boyfriend stains field// crimson with self-inflicted farewell.” Here we have the first leaving of childhood and possibilities. Here, the stanza break prolongs the experience, keeping the reader poised to fall with her. Yet the poem ends by undermining this exodus, in the lines,
Are you crying because he did this to your family
or are you just mad that now you won’t ever
get to take
This ending slows the reader down and sets us up for the stagnation, this wading in place the speaker must fight against.
The second poem, “Cynicism and Other Synonyms,” continues the slowing ending of the first poem, forcing us to linger with the speaker, treading in the foggy waters of depression. By manipulating line lengths, Slone speeds us up and slows us down like the drifts of ocean waves. In the lines,
and my name
and other synonyms
here I am
We see the effect of “Venal Exodus” in which the speaker is still here because she can’t choose the other way out.
But not all of Slone’s poems focus on the farewell. In the prose poem, “Ode to the Uterus,” the speaker takes on a more political tone and addresses the issues of reproduction and sexuality, in which another kind of water pools. Here, the speaker states, “shoreline mirrors sex mirrors making me a mother mirrors making my mother’s mother a mother mirrors.” Not only do the mother and the men became a reflection of the speaker, like the smooth surface of water, but also a reflection of history: of the speaker’s family, and of the world.
In this, and many other poems, the speaker grapples with the power of life, of men, of sex, of birth, of being a woman. This power is much different from the power of death that opens the book, and acts as a point of tension between the past and the now. The fluctuations of power become central to the speaker’s perception of life.
Further in, Slone ties the theme of the mother’s boyfriend’s suicide to the modern day gun rights debate. In the poem, “Within Your White Picket Fence,” the speaker states that,
your erasure tongues don’t
decompose your rags
don’t fill the dying bullet
holes of those whose throats are running raw.
In this instance, the poem acts as Aletheia, disclosing the truth trying to be concealed in which gun violence intrudes on life, both her own and others, and is another kind of power.
The speaker asserts that in this America, there is no way out alive.
Similarly, in the poem “hollow lungs, eyes, kazoos, and fingernails,” the speaker addresses the brutality of power, asserting that this is on all of our hands. In the lines,
we bury disassembled
rag dolls, pouring the nectar of humanity
over top the neglected
The nectar of humanity acts as that water that encompasses us all, through tears, through body and blood, through that shared genesis of the world in which we were all once ocean.
In this poem, the deliberate choice to refrain from capitalizing becomes a commentary on power and subjugation in which the power of the gun, of the inherent violence of police oppression is enacted through form. As lowercase has no power over uppercase, the speaker has no power over life. The poem also incorporates shorter lines that are cut off before they can finish, contributing to the narrative.
In the penultimate poem, “The Table Where We Sat and Sit,” signals the emersion, the slow rise of the speaker. In the line, “I gifted my mom an orphaned quarter…” the quarter is integral because it returns to the theme of money, of growing up poor, but it also signifies the beginnings of the patchwork needed to quilt the past with the present, bringing mother and daughter together again. In this quarter we see the mercy the speaker needs to learn to show herself, as well as the powerplay of currency.
The collection closes with “Muzzled Magic,” a prose poem that grounds the reader in the real and now, closing off the magic of water and reflection. Through the lines, “yarn scrapes against cracked palms. Playground of ghost tongues […] the other forgotten, fossilized teeth,” we can see the cyclical nature of death and life, in which the speaker must figure out how to begin the long slow process of sewing herself back up. In this sense, the poem takes on the final form of water, a tool used as divination, as the speaker is still seeking that last exit strategy, that final farewell of death, that is our ultimate, and prolonged, ending.
Hearing the Underwater is a poignant commentary on the depths in which power and pain dwell inside the heart’s ocean. Amid the unsettling conditions of growing up and living in today’s America, Savannah Slone invites the reader to drown with her, to wallow and listen to the slow siren song of life, death and regeneration in which we all must follow. Grab a copy at Finishing Line Press today!