BARTAB: AN AFTERHOURS BALLAD
Two Handed Engine Press
Cesca Janece Waterfield’s poetry is palpably stunning at times. Raw and evocative, her debut book, Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press) veers between profoundly personal poems about the nature of life fueled by substance abuse—and a refusal to accept traditional boundaries—and the prose poem-narrative of two musicians floundering in a world that has little use for impractical brilliance. Her writing is sharp, incisive, and unsparing of self or society.
Stylistically, Waterfield is a direct descendant of postmodernist Denise Levertov. She’s also a singer-songwriter, which no doubt explains the intrinsic play of rhythm and sound in her lines. Drawing deeply from a lifetime of musicianship, Bartab begins to hum, early on, with a sort of subconscious soundtrack laced with blues-soaked Americana. Waterfield’s tone is conversational and unapologetic, and Bartab is concerned with prices and prisons. The price of refusing conformity, of obstinate recklessness in the pursuit of one’s dreams; the prisons that society surrounds us with and those we create ourselves. The book’s subjects wallow in romanticized cheap living while subtly building to the conclusion that all of this impoverishment comes with a staggering cost. In the story of characters Evie and Daniel, we are led, for example, to contemplate the domestic horror of a surgical procedure where a mere fifty bucks means the difference between proper anesthesia and toughing things out with a few valium:
That day, Daniel drove Evie to the clinic. The nurse had explained that Evie would have to remain at the clinic for three hours after the procedure. The anesthetic gas was powerful, she had cautioned over the phone, and monitoring was necessary to ensure the patient could be discharged. In the waiting room, Daniel squeezed Evie’s hand and looked into her face. “I’ll be right here,” he said. She disappeared into the back.
In a cramped office, Evie watched a video. When it was done, the nurse asked for $375, in money order or cash. Evie’s chest squeezed in panic. “They said bring three twenty five.” She looked down at the bills in her hand. “Three twenty five.”
The nurse was marking paperwork and said to her pen, “That’s for oral analgesic. Valium. If you want nitrous gas, it’s $375.” Inside her alarm, Evie’s thoughts coalesced. “I’ll take valium, then.”
The nurse looked up. “Instead of nitrous?” Evie nodded. Her hands were clenched on her thighs. The nurse consoled her, “At least with valium, you won’t have to wait long in the recovery room.” She circled something on the sheet. Evie remembered Daniel was waiting and she relaxed a bit.
On the ceiling was a poster of a kitten.
Early on in the book, in the mesmerizing Velocity, we are treated to glimpses of Evie’s childhood and adolescence:
I was sad but now I’m getting up wood grain below
my feet rises to swirl in my head swallow intentions
white cold porcelain of the tub’s lip I study the flowers
I painted on the shelf’s edge gorgeous pansies delicate
blooms with the correct number of petals because I
love biology sit up front get high with the grad students
maybe I’ll study neuroscience cure my sister’s epilepsy
I should mold some flowers from polymer clay no a clay I
will make I could patent it drive drive to Chesapeake
the dark Chesapeake earth smells round and sharp
simultaneously strange little animals (grim, they’re grim!)
dart through my headlights their eyes recognize me
they note my gift my head is awash in pictures what my
mother called vanity my father beat us my sister & me
differently I knew watching him beat her he understood
it was meditated it was math but for now I’m speeding
the Eastern Shore thuck thuck branch beneath the tires
thuck and I’m a girl
It’s Evie’s past, then, that largely, perhaps, informs her dealings with men (“I’m here cause Daniel said so”). Particularly heartbreaking is True Story, in which a drunken Evie triumphantly comes home to Daniel to announce, “I din spend any money, baby!”—proud of having gotten wasted without wasting any of their precious green.
It would be easy to despise Daniel but for Waterfield’s adroit painting of his character. Daniel is no villain, nor even a particularly bad man. He loves and tries to do right by Evie – but fails to shoulder his own burdens. From the prose poem-narrative A Prior Engagement:
The waitress reported back that she had a fresh bottle of Dalwhinnie and asked if he wanted one. Daniel thought about money and Evie’s smile. He ordered a double on the rocks. He saw no way to save it this time.
The metaphor of substance abuse as prison is well established, even overused. But Waterfield is effective in illustrating the rationalizations we make when in the throes of addiction. Consider:
These days were defined by a different kind of slide. Evie did not know what to do about it. She simply couldn’t put down a bottle of vodka once she’d screwed off its top. So she rationalized that going to bars with increasing frequency would put the quash on her habit. Because she would have to pay the tab at the end of the night…
And the frankly stunning (and harrowing) account of Drink:
Then you remember how you take it
and you want to pull it into you,
for it to work you over,
dusk shushing day.
You’ve admitted it.
After you step out of sensation –
that silky dress –
shrug into shame,
and return, you recall the afternoon you
fucked the security guard on top of a parking garage
while a neighboring rooftop party saw and began to watch…
You imagine how it will feel,
not long from now…
When images meld, particulars scatter…
Your shoulders tense slightly
as you sense the clock’s progress,
its second hand shoving tenaciously forward.
You slap each minute down 25
like cards in hands of blackjack you win
and win and win…
Of course, the source of these demons is all too recognizable. Then there’s the too familiar background music of depression…(“The keening dirge/how long must I listen? When will we agree to stop pretending it is not there?”)… so delicately and heartbreakingly rendered in Portent, where:
To stretch long into the white spheres of stillness,
one must recall the clamor of hordes.
And as a single shiver descends
a body still ringing with warmth,
grief reaches into the air
to snap scenes between its sharp teeth:
snow flashing gold under sun,
the clattering limbs of the dog
loping into the brush, and I
at my window, watching birds yawp over seed
–as if we didn’t know the machination of sorrow;
how it stirs beneath even these days, waking,
rubbing its eyes with budding fists.
The final poem in the book is titled Memorial. It suggests a sober heroine looking back on her past with regret and wonder. Yet it is Evie’s passion—for music, for her own gifts as an artist—that finally drives her recovery, propelling her out of heartbreak and dissolution and back into the joy of existence, a
I am coming a part of,
to wear as wing
of crow, clear
for landing, in my way. I rise
at the sudden clang of
yet another knell…
I fall down at altar as well as any, caw
swell as crow…
There are varied sorts of soldiers,
and on that day at last
the door whines open at my touch,
I want your face to look like Judas
and it’s the coming
of your god damned Lord.