Review: “Trouble the Water” by Derrick Austin (BOA Editions, 2016)


All art seeks to create transcendence; it rarely succeeds. This occurs in nature as a model for our best efforts. A river runs downstream for hours. A dark ocean listens to waves smack and break against rock. If you watch and listen long enough, the water’s movement becomes a part of you. It’ll sync your heartbeat with the tides and eddies.

This same feeling is evoked in the brackish and sublime poems of Derrick Austin’s debut collection, Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016). These poems occur where waters meet and converge—desire, sex, love, art, and race. Each idea is a wave folding over and engulfing what precedes it, building before breaking and drifting away. This is a book that readers can—and should—return to again and again, instinctually as one reaches for a drink when thirsty. These poems transport and transcend.

Austin’s speakers seek unity between the flesh and spirit. This search is framed by the book’s epilogue, taken from the Bible, John 5:4-6, which ends with the essential question, “Wilt thou be made whole?” It is this question that the book aims to answer. The problems in wholeness are multiple. How can it be attained amongst so much whirring water?

In “Pass-A-Grill” the speaker observes that “…the sea keeps upping the ante…the land itself, / an erosion so ceaseless I want to give / my body, wholly, to something else.” The contrast between the speaker and the ocean lies in the idea of permanence. The beach endures the waves, but will eventually vanish as a consequence. The land is ephemeral. This causes the speaker to seek “something else,” something more durable. What they find is a kiss to consume, and to be consumed by, in the poem’s stunning conclusion: “Mouth to mouth, we’re our own drowning.”

The sea’s language, sometimes technical, is used to an intriguing effect when applied to love and desire. In the title sonnet of the longer sequence, “City of Rivers”, the lover is described “emerging, naked, / from a cool shower. Rivulets chart your body’s cartography; / they stream and shine and lift themselves to you.” Even in the city, there’s rebirth in a simple shower, an act of renewal for the body, formed as a map to be traced.

Trouble the Water evokes the verse of A.R. Ammons, specifically his poem “For Harold Bloom” in which a speaker searches nature for an image for longing. Ammons writes, “I flaked the bark of stunt fir: / I looked into space and into the sun / and nothing answered my word longing…” Austin’s poems attempt to answer Ammons’ search through the erotic.

Consider these lines from “Apology,” which provide a slant take on William Carlos William’s apology for eating a plum, except here the apricot is the forbidden fruit:

…because you told me not to

I gobbled whole globes, soft

bites whispering off, and off, and off
until I unbuckled my belt to fit myself:

because I wanted you to catch me,

throttle me, and take my fingers in your
mouth: because it hurt to breathe…

The transgression is in the eating, a sweet consumption that gives the lines power. It’s a declaration masked as an apology. Thank god for good love poems, but this isn’t one. This is a fuck poem, and thank god for those, too.

The poems of Trouble the Water are most thrilling when they pivot into ekphrasis. These are some of the most pleasing because they frame art as reliable, while love, well—not so much. In “Sans Souci”, Austin writes, “I believe in art more often than your cock.” Wise choice. The cock will fail—messy. Art will fail too, but less often. Only through art can wholeness can be realized, connecting us across eons. We must swim in art without drowning. Perhaps we already do—as Austin writes:

Cruel body, which gathers and leaves
such sweetness.
Only darkness in the painting,

             the body’s inmost color.

Derek JG Williams

Derek JG Williams puts words into rows both long and short. He's a graduate of the MFA program at University of Massachusetts - Boston and a 2016 Blacksmith House Emerging Writer. His poems are published or forthcoming in Plume, Best New Poets, Vinyl, Forklift Ohio, Salamander, Prairie Schooner, Storyscape Journal, and New Ohio Review, among many others. Derek currently lives in Arizona. Learn more about him at

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