Reading Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water

Temptation by WaterLive-blogging seems to be making a bit of a comeback lately, but you still don’t see too many readers live-blogging their reading, for some reason. I resolved to try and remedy that today — except that instead of a computer, I used a pen and clipboard and transcribed the whole thing this evening, so it wasn’t quite live, but close. This is the first of four books that Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I are encouraging others to also read and blog about this month. If you do so anytime before the end of the month, please send me the link and I’ll update this post to include it, right up here at the top. Also, we’re going to be interviewing Diane by phone this coming Saturday, lord-willing-and-the-creek-don’t-rise. So let us know if there’s anything in particular you’d like us to ask.

[4/7/11] Kristin Berkey-Abbott: “The Temptations of Diane Lockward’s Latest Book”

[4/9] Dale Favier @mole: “The Lesson of Loss: Temptation by Water”

[4/10] Dale @mole: “More on Lockward’s Temptation by Water”

[4/23] Nic S., Very Like a Whale: “‘Tempation by Water’ — Daine Lockward”

7:51 a.m. It’s in the high 40s and I’m sitting on the porch with my coffee, reading Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water. There’s “the weather outside and the weather inside,” Lockward reminds me (“Weather Report”). Indeed.

A loose confederation of kinglets moves through the birches, identifiable not by their crowns — the birds are silhouettes against the overcast sky — but their diminutive size and their rootless lack of allegiance to any perch. Hard to believe they ever pause long enough to nest. “Grief, a vagrant huddled in the corner,” I read (“Implosion”). I spot a brown creeper, first on the dead elm and then on the trunk of the walnut beside the driveway, like a nuthatch with its wiring switched, ascending rather than descending, in the same way that spring is autumn played backwards. Or something like that. A squirrel trots into the woods with his black, disinterred breakfast between his teeth.

“Leaving in Pieces” is a lot of fun. “The hairless head was yellowish-white/ and shiny as a peeled clove of garlic.” Poor bald husband!

“This is the season of the centipede.” Terrific opening line there for “What He Doesn’t Know.” I wish I’d written it.

I try to stop hearing the white-throated sparrow’s song as wistful (or the bluebird’s as bubbly) but it’s hard. Like Lockward’s centipede, the birds are “without our human flaws,” but not by nearly as much.

“Pleasure,” I read, and a nearby mourning dove goes “Who-OH!”

“Outside, goldfinches bright as lemon peels” (“Pleasure”). Then in “Stripping the Lemon”: “Would you grate/ my goldfinch/ gold[?]” This is the most gold I’ve read about since Mark Doty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The witch-doctor rattle of our smallest woodpecker, he of the down. “The slow slide of warm stones/ over hills and valleys of flesh” (“Why I Won’t Have a Full Body Massage”).

Crows, crows.

Lockward tends to put poems with similar themes together. Next up is “My Mother Turns Her Back.” Wow, I like this one! “The snake on my mother’s/ back thickens, a python/ bulging with rats.”

Is that a flicker calling from the corner of the field? Sure sounds like it.

The heat effect from my morning shower has almost entirely worn off, and the cold and damp are beginning to get to me. But listen: “I watch my mother// grow down, as if she carries/ a burden of basket, as if/ already greeting the earth.” Simply a magnificent poem.

In “Hunger in the Garden,” Lockward depicts raccoons as forming nuclear families — oops. The deer eating the spring and summer blossoms still in the bud, though, that sure sounds familiar.

“April at the Arboretum.” I’m listening to the cowbird’s liquid lisp from atop the tallest tree in the yard, as usual: the nest parasite and his mate miss nothing. Their eyes are on the sparrow, you could say. Lockward is describing an April sleet storm crushing the flowers. Then… more goldfinches! Yay! “Tarnished, soft, and brilliant.”

The sky suddenly brightens. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers are really going at it — fighting or courting, it’s hard to tell. You’d think I’d know all the neighbors’ habits by now. “Without the noun of his name” (“Without Words for It”): sometimes the simplest phrases are the most resonant, aren’t they?

I become aware of the highway noise from the southwest; it’s not too loud today. A drone note.

“All the sentences were simple and declarative” quoth she. This is one poem about language that actually doesn’t annoy me too much. Right on cue, the monosyllables of a nuthatch.

“Don’t call him witch doctor” (“Nostrum”). Cool, I was thinking about witch doctors! Not nearly as P.C. as “shamans,” but you know, some so-called shamans are or were, in fact, witch doctors. They could fuck you up and would tell you so to your face, or so certain ethnographers have reported. Anyway…

“Inside the sack, seeds that crackle like grit”: description of eating a fig in “Woman with Fruit.” Lockward is really good at food poems. I’m been considering writing a collection of food poems myself, so this is a welcome schooling.

8:55. Fingers frozen. Maybe it’ll warm up later and I can resume this after lunch.


2:45 p.m. Well, it’s up to 56 degrees. I’ll take it! One rain shower just past, the air smells of ozone and wet soil. Two, or possibly three, wood frogs are quacking in the teacup-sized pond down in the boggy corner of the field.

“If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie”: I’m not even that crazy about cookies, but this poem has me salivating. Damn.

And then there’s “Learning to Live Alone,” something I know a little about. “Trees that capitulate to nothing,// and speckled sparrows that light on the lawn.” Yep, companionship is where you find it. (Helps to be drunk, though. Then every beetle is like a brother.)

A chipmunk’s alarm call. The sun won’t quite come out.

“To a Potato” solidifies my intention to make twice-baked potatoes for supper tonight. “I love the smell of you just before baking,” I read. Wonderful ode. Then it’s on to “My Dark Lord” and: “Lay me among the potatoes./ Shroud me in a shirt of loam and peat moss.”

“Spying on My New Neighbors” describes a modern suburban heiros gamos, “his hoe dropped on her rake […] flowers blooming/ from ears and eyes, the red peonies of their mouths.” Nice.

One of the wood frogs has a sudden burst of enthusiasm, or maybe a fit of rage. Hard to tell. But excitement is running high after so many too-cold weeks.

There’s a “scrim of evergreens” in one poem, and a “scrim of trees” in the very next poem. That’s at least one scrim too many. One per book is pretty much the limit. I fault the editor there. But from the latter, “Bathing in Forest Dusk,” I absolutely love these lines: “I breathe the duff/ of deciduous leaves,// leave my sorrows/ among moss and mushrooms,/ among lilies of the valley/ and jack-in-the-pulpits.” And: “Your trees breathe/ me in.” Wow.

Two doves exchange baritone clarinet notes, as they are wont to do.

“When Pigs Flee” almost makes me like feral pigs. That’s something. And then it turns into another good food poem, by talking about all the pork products these pigs won’t be in. Yay, a mention of scrapple!

Was that a rumble of thunder? Crap.

Nice capture of the photobug impulse in “Capturing the Image.” Then more thunder. And more potatoes! “Jesus Potato” is written in one of those annoying forms that repeats the same rhyme words in a cyclic pattern, but it has too many good lines to dislike. The potato turns into the Pope by the end, a cool move that might be opaque to anyone who doesn’t know Spanish. (Or maybe I am reading into it.)

I read “The way lightning sometimes strikes,” and there’s a flash of distant lightning. Really! May God strike me dead if I’m lying.

The rumbles seem to be growing more distant, but here come some fat raindrops rustling the leaves. As long as it doesn’t blow in, though, it can rain all it wants.

“Ecdysiast” — bitchin’ title for a poem about an exotic dancer. Her gaze is “at once smoldering and icy.”

It’s getting dark four hours too early. This can’t be good.

“The chunk of day we appropriate/ for happiness, when we will be happy/ because that is the appointed hour” (“Happy Hour”). Yeah, mandatory fun sucks. But Lockward really evokes the mood well.

The scattered raindrops multiply into a mob. A squirrel races from the tulip poplar.

“Filbert” — a poem about the Charlie Brown of nuts. “You’re that kid whose mother named him/ Filbert.”

Oops, that flash was kind of close. The rain has already stopped, though. This storm is a bit of a filbert.

Ah, the obligatory dead-animal poem: “A Murmuration of Starlings.” I like it though, especially the ending, which laments the mass poisoning of “Birds who’d sung their own song/ and wooed their mates with lavender and thistle.” As a conservationist I do feel there are times when local eradications of invasive species are appropriate, but that doesn’t — or shouldn’t — make such actions any less horrible, or we who are the uber-invasive species any less culpable. Poems like this are essential reminders of, uh, how much we suck.

Another shower, but the thunder is now to the northeast. Well, most of it, anyway. Temperature down to 55. The smell of smoke. There’s a typo on page 61, I think, “draught” for “drought.” The poem is “Supplication to Water”: “I have polluted the pristine lake, peed in the pool, … I have … prayed for your conversion/ to wine.” A great litany of sins. “Catch me between the devil and the deep deep blue./ Let me enter the same river twice, for I am grungy.” I love this poem! Also, use of “grungy” more than atones for the earlier double-scrim offense.

Now this here’s some rain. (Have the coltsfoot flowers that were out along the road this morning — first of the year! — folded up, I wonder?) Time to put the potatoes in the oven and do a quick check of email.


4:33. It’s down to 53F, though the sky is once again brightening. Sound is coming out of the east now, whatever that might portend: traffic going through the gap.

I read: “She remembers how you slid into this world ass first,/ a comic reversal forewarning who you would be” — a poem about an asshole (“It Runs This Deep”). If breech birth is destiny, I’m in trouble.

This may well be the definitive asshole poem against which all other asshole poems will henceforth be measured. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s… perfect. Must get Lockward to read this for the podcast.

A robin is singing — first one I’ve heard since this morning. Nothing remarkable, I realize, but hey, it’s been a long damn winter.

A very good poem about peaches, followed by “You Offer Lychees to Your American Friends,” in which the speaker is trying to convert her Chinese friend to chocolate, urging her to “Learn to love what is decadent,/ what grows in other gardens.” I like the subtle way the topic of inequality is broached.

“Kerfuffle”: a poem made to read out loud, so I do. Again, Lockward places like with like, the decadent pleasure of language right after the chocolate. “He was onomatopoetic,” she explains.

Another poem about a male lover, “Side Effects,” is just what it says: an artful list of dangerous side effects. Impressive. I also can’t help thinking that if this could be reworked into a ballad, it might very well go platinum on the country music charts.

Song sparrow now. A car coming up the road. Another small thunderstorm rolls in — or is all the same, very relaxed storm? “The tinny sound of steel,/ wind swirling…” (“There Where Love Had Been”)

“I … want to believe/ the trees are a sign I could be wood” (“The Desolation of Wood”). Me too.

Getting dark again. This will be a day with multiple dusks.


5:25, 51F. I’m back from eviscerating the potatoes and refilling them with their new and improved flesh. Thunder still. A squirrel chisels open a black walnut. “Inside that shell, the sound of regret, relentless as any ocean.” (“How is a Shell Like Regret?”) This poem reminds me of my shell-collecting grandmother.

Reading “The Temptation of Mirage,” I make appreciative noises at “the levitation of lake.” The poem ends with a night-blooming cereus, too. Can’t go wrong with that.

Another fruit poem, “Love Song with Plum,” has some wonderful word-play with the near-rhymes: plumb, plumes, plumage, plummet. Another one to read out loud.

“‘No Soup for You!'” — In a book with so many edible things, you can’t not include an evocation of the great and holy ur-food. “I believe in the power of soup,” she says, and conjures up a Whitmanesque soup kitchen where (contrary to the title) all are welcome.

No sound now but rain and distant traffic.

“This is the geometry of longing” (“Phone in a White Room”). I’m glad she included this poem, so different from all the others in the book with its dystopian dreamscape. It’s a good antidote to the soupy utopia.

The rain’s easing up again. A crow calls. (Pretty much the only calls I get are from crows.)

“Twilight” features a baby who is also a muffin, “his pure buttery goodness…” Why is this not disturbing?

“Seventh-Grade Science Project”: last poem. The speaker is collecting butterflies all summer, her parents recently separated. She left her “multi-colored fingerprints/ on everything I touched.” Deft move to close with an ars poetica in the last two lines.

Time for supper.


  1. What a cool idea – live-blogging a reading! I’m a scrawler-on-the-page sort of a reader and it’s usually only after I’ve finished the whole thing and then gone back over the scrawls that I get a big picture of the book. Wonder how live-blogging would work on that dynamic? Thanks for sharing – this sounds like a great collection, definitely on my to-read list! Nic


    1. Glad you liked this experiment! Yeah, it’s not so good on the broad overview, but I figure Kristin will do a better job with that, anyway. My main criterion is to get people excited about reading poetry (and this book in particular).


      1. I think live-blogging works better for the solitary! Mine would be jammed with children and ridiculous events.

        Diane Lockward was a good choice and match for you.


        1. Mine would be jammed with children and ridiculous events.
          Which to us solitary types would be really interesting to read about!


    1. Great post, Kristin! I would like to see you live-blog such a day for real some time, with or without snatches of reading among the chaos.

      That’s cool that you got a prompt out of the post! Do share the result if it turns out well.


  2. Oh oh oh. Maybe I could read some poems in between managing baby inputs and outputs…


    1. You should! Poems are great for fitting into the interstices… well, except for epics, of course.


  3. i like what you’ve done! it very closely mimics how our minds work, i think — the exchange of inner awareness about inner thoughts and concentration on something external:

    “The heat effect from my morning shower has almost entirely worn off, and the cold and damp are beginning to get to me. But listen: ‘I watch my mother// grow down, as if she carries/ a burden of basket, as if/ already greeting the earth.’ Simply a magnificent poem.”

    I have this on my shelf and have been intending to read it. And now I will!!


    1. Cool! You might want to savor it a bit more slowly than I did, I don’t know. For me, it’s always a toss-up as to which is the better reading style: a slow, attentive read-through at one go that allows one to see the poems in context, or reading a book over the course of weeks, one or two poems at a time, to give each one space in memory and imagination. It might be interesting to blog the latter style, too! (Glad this post worked for you, though.)


      1. i tend to do them in one or two sittings. not many things in the world i’ve tackled with proper pacing. :)


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