The Soak, the Sloughing, the Time Spent: On Bath by Jen Silverman

A chapbook, Bath by Jen Silverman just turned up in the mail one day. It’s not the fact of its arrival that is so curious, but that the tiny book was the exact thing I didn’t know I needed to read. I am enthralled at the slim volume’s concept and the selection of poems used in its furtherance. To be honest, I’m jealous. Of the poet’s talent, yes, but also that she made a seemingly simple premise work so well. The chap is, as the title suggests, a series of poems about or concerned with assorted bathing situations. Even as I type the words, I know I’m making it sound like a glossy coffee table book full of staged bathroom photos and twee comments about renewal or “me time” or such nonsense. It is not that at all. The collection is somehow at once sinister and innocent, purifying and full of residue.

The book collects eleven poems titled “Bath 1,” Bath 2,” and so on, each also marked by location. Each poem uses the bath or soaking situation to evoke a place, but also as a device to fan outward to the true condition in the poem. The conceit of the book allows the poems to talk about so many concerns, such as ritual, offering, cleansing, communication/misunderstanding, the passage of time, and as formatted here, place.

In “Bath 2 (Cairo),” we see the bath: “The bathtub was stone. Set in the middle of / a tile floor. Verdigris. Verdant. Moss in the cracks.” And then, the condition: “Ancient pharaohs bathed with less abandon // than you. Head back. Wet throat / Skin to stone. Outside the city simmered with heat.” The speaker could not rest, could not feel they deserved such luxury: “I thought: We will pay for this. / Someone will charge us day by day. / A price for exuberance.” A year passes and the speaker hopes for change:

…I dreamed

Wide and blind that I ran you a bath.

Your skin grew scales. We swam together.

We had fish language, based in water.

When it rained, our language grew.

The poems are run through with several tensions: the inability to relax, the difficulty in feeling that one deserves luxury, the constant reminder that we must lug around a body that is forever not quite clean. In “Bath 9 (New Mexico)”: 

I lower myself into a steam-choked pool. 

You ask

do I feel good / do I feel strange / has anything changed.

The sky is a hot blue arc.

The dust is all dust, a living chronicle of 

what falls apart, and why, and how quickly.

The poem acknowledges the local geology (“the wind / flakes like mica, our skins glitter) as well as the rush of time (“We made such grand promises. But here // we are, limping toward a new persuasion”). The poem feels like the anxiety of being just a speck in the vast infinity, and the bath itself reminds us that within that, we each have own singular corporeal experience. And yet, in most of the poems, there is another present or implied. 

In “Bath 6 (Louisville)” the speaker recounts the (presumed) beloved’s baptism. “They said / Praise Jesus, Praise Him. You bobbed up // half-drowned.” Despite going from “believing everything to nothing” the beloved doubts everything, returns to the water “back to a reckoning.”

The speaker draws them a bath, perhaps to cleanse away the ill effects of a cleansing gone wrong, but ends up in the bath themself, submerged and staring towards the light. I can’t help but remember lifeguard training I took ages ago, where we were told, to make sure we were safe first, that we could not rescue others if we were drowning ourselves. 

The numbered bath poems are severed by the long poem, “The Devil Dogs My Steps, But if it Weren’t Him, it Would just Be Someone Else” a better and more accurate version of the adage, “wherever you go, there you are.” In essence: it impossible to take a break from one’s self.

A beefy woman at the bar says:

I like to travel because it reminds me 

How great it is to come home.

The Devil says:

I like to come home because it reminds me

Of what a disaster we make of what’s ours. 

The Devil poem and the bath poems are colloquial and funny (both ha-ha and weird); this casual voice paired with the cycles of disappointment and “lite” chaos tells the reader that the speaker has given up on any hopes of order and would just like to sink into the bath already, please. There is some sort of a resolution, at the end of “Bath 11 (New York)” wherein the speaker and their ex, as well as the ex’s wife who is in labor and a few other people are together charting a way to their futures, “How strange it is: all the ways we are given to make a family (…)ask me to explain all this, / what could I say, what could I say, but: Love.”

I found the chapbook’s emotions accurate, with the possible exception of these last lines. They are too tidy, too resolved. While I don’t disagree with the sentiment, this last poem lands soft, and doesn’t leave room to dream about/dread the future. Or maybe being told “love” is too directed; I want to feel love (or whatever sentiment) not be told that it is here in front of me. But, who knows, maybe I make too big of a deal over a few lines in an otherwise strange and fulfilling chapbook. 

The speaker’s way of trying to find purchase in their own relationships while at the same time assessing the locations and their history creates an interesting tension. The soak, the decay, the waiting. When in the last two poems, “Bath 10 (Iowa City)” and the aforementioned “Bath 11 (New York),” the speaker finds a sort of resting place, the reader feels relief for them, because we have witnessed the route traveled, the things shed.   

Linda Michel-Cassidy’s writing has appeared in Rattle, The Rumpus, No Tokens, December, and others. She is an educator and visual artist, and edits for the Marin Poetry Center and Tupelo Quarterly. She lives on a houseboat in Northern California and has recently taken up distance swimming.