in review: The Blessing of Dark Water
The Blessing of Dark Water by Elizabeth Lyons Publication Date: April 11, 2017 Publisher: Alice James Books
In her debut collection The Blessing of Dark Water, Elizabeth Lyons captures the instability inherent in living with mental illness with heartbreaking precision. Switching between her own perspective and that of Walter Inglis Anderson, an American painter who was hospitalized for schizophrenia, Lyons writes of the tribulations of those living with neurological disorders. Among the issues examined are the struggle to reconcile one’s sense of identity with illness, the challenges of maintaining romantic relationships, and the daily struggle to remain hopeful in the face of often unrelenting psychological pain.
From 1938 to 1940, Anderson was in and out of mental hospitals for severe depression with paranoid trends and schizophrenic features. He was a prolific painter and writer, and one can hardly read about him without wondering if his creativity was tied to his illness. During one of his escapes from a Mississippi mental hospital, he lowered himself on bedsheets from a second-story window, leaving the wall covered in drawings of birds in flight (one of his most common subjects) done in soap. Lyons renders the scene with wistful beauty:
I knew you couldn’t be a constant
so I let the doctors guide you
to a room far from me. I knew you were
past help. When you escaped
from the hospital, your apology: a drawing of birds
in flight. Ivory soap and red brick
as good a canvas as any.
In Anderson’s story, Lyons finds images and themes that she delicately weaves into this collection of simultaneously graceful and completely unnerving poems: the desire for escape, the image of birds in flight, the act of molding clay (Anderson was also a potter by trade). Between the book’s sections are quotations related to Anderson’s life, including notes from his psychiatric evaluations, quotes from his own writing, and excerpts from his correspondence with his wife Agnes:
Until you can show me, in your letters, that
you have lost that dreadful willingness—even
pleasure—in remaining just as is, I cannot
give you false hope…I cannot live with you
in that state.
—Agnes Anderson to Walter
The strain one partner’s illness can put on a romantic relationship is a theme that pervades the collection. In Anderson, the speaker seems to find in many ways a mirror of her own experience. While it is perhaps a small comfort in the face of grave depression and pain to find similarities in others’ struggles, this particular connection helps the speaker to make sense of her own story, and that is no small thing.
The Blessing of Dark Water is almost unceasingly dark. Lyons is unflinching in her portrayal of the reality of the deepest depressive states, as in “Apology”:
No amount of prayer or balm can fix this.
Your body cannot find north.
It is entirely dark.
You are a sad twin, standing at the bed’s edge,
counting your mistakes.
A man leaves, says you have a knife
where your heart should be.
This is why the compass won’t obey you,
why the doctors can’t find your pulse.
It is dark. Entirely.
Still, the book’s title suggests the possibility for meaning and hope within darkness. Lines like “If the illness in your brain is brutal, / be brutal back” and “I have learned to be a hidden thing you cannot break” display a voice that is strong and fiercely determined, as Lyons deftly guides the reader through the darkest caverns of the mind. It is a journey at times frightening and certainly heartbreaking, but one that ultimately leaves the reader with a renewed sense of awe at the resilience of the human spirit.