Jack Myers, The Memory of Water
Publisher: Western Michigan University
2011, 103 pages, paperback, $15

FOR FORTY-TWO PAGES, I struggled with understanding a dying man’s poetry. How could I relate to the truth that flashes before a man as he watches days grow shorter and comes to accept tomorrow’s end? I felt lost in the poet’s grandiose meditations present in his life’s final stanzas—moments of clarity that take hold of people as they face an inevitable demise: “No, death deserves something special. After all / it’s bigger than a birthday.”

I felt shallow, as if I was missing the way in, until I came to the last section of Jack Myers’s final collection, The Memory of Water. This final section was his last gift to readers—a map to understand how to dissect the life lessons handed out in the collection’s first two sections. Suddenly, the tight form and restraint felt impossible and the hopeful brevity of voice became saint-like. I was instantly floored by a collection I’d sworn could not move me.

After having written nineteen collections of poetry, Myers passed away in 2009. His wife and a close friend organized his last collection, which holds eighty poems separated into three sections. The first observes life from the lens of a man questioning his importance. The poems struggle with the dilemma of being a poet within academia, criticize academia itself, and contemplate the ignorance of youth. The second section explores a life filled with questions, answers, and discoveries.

It’s the book’s last section that gracefully exposes Myers’s suffering and offers Zen-like meditations on coping with grief and facing death. The light tone used to convey the poet’s reflections make the reader’s discovery of the loss of his son and the severity of his own illness deep and startling. The poems offer wisdom while simultaneously making you laugh at the colloquial simplicity of their language. Myers suffered from cancer of the stomach lining caused by a parasite living in his liver, which he discusses with a tact that betrays the hopelessness of his physical condition:

I love weird, unlucky stuff like this
where the hero’s running out of time
trying to figure out how he got poisoned
by an Asian liver fluke, which restaurant—
the Double Happiness, Thai One On, or
The Lover’s Wok—he ate mussels in,
until he figures out that’s not what matters.

I don’t believe I could ever achieve what Myers accomplished in this last collection. If my eldest son committed suicide in the middle of my cancer treatment, I don’t believe I would honor form, bring musicality to my language, or hide my pain inside white space. The collection as a whole feels like a crooked smile, an au revoir to family, students, and existence itself. A poem devastates then quickly convinces readers that it’s simply the way of life and one must let go:

I believe whatever disappears or survives
or comes into being is a prayer that’s already
been answered, and that we feel alone
because we won’t let go of what is gone
or changed or hasn’t happened yet.

Walking this morning with my arms around you,
the dogs snoring, and a mourning dove cooing,
I felt I awoke in a peaceable kingdom
where the fear of death turned-inside out
into a love for life. If I prayed, I’d pray that for you.

—Amanda North