Jacqueline Waters’s Commodore (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)
Review by Laura Henriksen
You know the one where you’re afraid of what you want? Afraid of what will happen if you get it, but also afraid of what will happen if you don’t? Because of the way your desire renders you vulnerable to disappointment, pity, and powerlessness generally, such that your new desire is to hide or disguise your true desire? Or how about the one where you don’t know what you want, you just want to want what everyone else wants, something you hope you can have and make do with, a way to live with the contradictions of living and desiring in a world that doesn’t appear to care about you or what you want, pretending not only to have things under control, but under your own control, guided by an agency, which is your agency, in pursuit of desires that are your own, authored by you? Master of your own destiny, commodore of your own fleet.
Jacqueline Waters’s Commodore is, to me, a book about power and control and desire and vulnerability at their most intertwined. I read from it one morning while eating breakfast, and suddenly I feel concerned that in this private pleasure I’m already exposing myself to disappointment, licking the top of the yogurt container, a sure display that I desire too much, and so nothing will be sufficient and I will be left a perpetually desiring vacuum, pitiable and failed, when if only I could want nothing, escape longing, then I could never be controlled. Waters writes both, “It isn’t easy to eat / at a table where no one / is eating or seems ever / to have needed to eat” (68) and “People of the future, I resemble you. // Like you, I wear in my heart what I read. / Like you, I didn’t eat it because / I was hungry, I ate it / because other people were hungry” (81). In these lines Waters shows how something we are asked to perceive and perform back as uncomplicated — eating, since everyone needs to eat to sustain their bodies — becomes a maze of perceptions, desires, and other people, wanting to please them, or at the least, not wanting to draw their attention and with it their potential judgment or pity as you eat in the vacant, fluorescent office kitchen or the bleak “grab-and-go” style cafeteria across the street, willing yourself in either instance to a privacy like a type of invisibility, hiding any pleasure you might take, until that pleasure is hidden even from yourself, until there is no relief to be found in a lunch break, and you’d just as soon get back to laboring. As Waters writes in “Don’t Be Upset If You Don’t Hear from Me,” “You like this cake I’ll cut you a slice / A sliver / It’s just a worthless sliver / If it were me I would be more circumspect about it / I would be less going on about it / I’d tear its branches off and act like I hadn’t thought about it / Decorate the tree half and shove it out there to sit” (38). These poems unveil that impulse to hide your care and hope so that they can’t be used to hurt you, a move that provides the illusion of having things under control, while actually making you all the more pliable to being controlled by power beyond you, the power that is always already using your care and hope against you.
To move through a world as mediated by expectations around what is an acceptable way to move around the world takes not only the illusion of self-control, but a constant maintenance of self-control, your body like your pet. Does that make you your own commodore then, master of your own fleet? That seems like a stretch — the ability to perform what is demanded is not the same as the ability to make your own demands. Is Waters the commodore? She is, after all, the architect of these poems we are currently inhabiting, she is the one building the frame and breaking the line, in a way that reminds me of the insistent flow of a logical argument — If A, then B, if B, then C — and so on into a promised certainty, into proof. But the feeling of control in the movement of the poems, the accumulation from line to line, is challenged both by the conceptual exploration of vulnerability in the poems, and the moments of vulnerability in the poems. From “Candor:” “Why do I strike things out / I think will reveal too much — / I mean in my other poems, not / this one where I am sort of / letting it all lie. / Well I say it’s because / it’s a distraction / from the interpersonal standoff I am / aiming for, which is true, but also / I’m afraid to ‘stand revealed,’ although / when I think about others I think / we are all revealed all the time, I mean / let’s face it there’s self-disclosure / and the author’s attitude toward self-disclosure / that are always right there disclosed” (33). But is this self-disclosure creating a connection between us, the readers and Waters, or the illusion of connection, thereby illuminating our longing for connection even as it is thwarted near-constantly? Is this really a rupture through the written text, bringing us together through the medium of the page, the poem it houses? I think of the most beautiful song of 2016, “Self Control” by Frank Ocean, the way his voice sometimes cracks as he sings “You made me lose my self control.” But you know his voice cracks because he chooses for it to — it’s part of the performance of longing and frustration, and maybe hope, but I’m not sure. These poems ask, when do we stop performing ourselves, our desires, our fears, and when do we become them. Is the answer always or never? What is revealed when we stand revealed? A deeper truth, or its absence, its impossibility?
And then, can we really use self-control to protect ourselves from the ocean of our longing? No, longing remains. In “Horsing Around With Your Boyfriend,” Waters writes, “You replied coldly / so as to disguise / a greater range of feeling” (55). But that greater range of feeling doesn’t disappear; it has nowhere to disappear to, as Waters writes in this poem’s neighbor poem across the spine, “American Songbook,” “So much goodness surrounded you / You sang through the songbook / Deaf to its warnings / Hearing only its beauty / Believing that beauty / Regulated you” (54). All of the beauty in music, and poetry, all the beauty in the world, is no mere outlet to regulate your overflowing feelings, but rather the eruption of those overflowing feelings mirroring themselves back to you, whether or not you will look. The illusion of containment points always to what cannot be contained. Is this uncontainability a possible liberatory project? I hope so.
Reading Commodore makes me turn again to Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism,” in which she explains, “[…] where cruel optimism operates, the very vitalizing or animating potency of an object or scene of desire contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place,” where what we desire, or are persuaded to desire, because we are persuaded it will be what makes us happy, in fact stands counter to our best chance at happiness or being free, slowly degrading not only that chance but our very survival. Waters poems explore this cruel optimism, this self-policing to prove one’s worth and worthiness. In the same breath — in their ruptures and their beauty and grace and self-disclosure — even as they explore the impossibility of connection, they do connect, even as they turn in on isolation, they themselves are the evidence of all that is shared. As Berlant explains, “It is always a risk to let someone in, to insist on a pacing different from the productivist pacing, say, of capitalist normativity.” These poems choose to risk it, and in exploring desire they disrupt the system of control that would both attempt to construct our desires and use our desires against us. Or, as Waters writes in “All Ears:”
Friendships form as each person finds the courage to memorize the alliance. Its risks, its contours, the flaky ways you earn and lose faith in each other adding up, over time, into a grace: familiarity.
Suppose you use a line like, “I love you, but I don’t really know you.”
Or, “Town is that way.”
Like moving the head
a millimeter to see what the bars have been obscuring all along
and the next bar will obscure it. One millimeter. (77)