The Myth of Water is a cycle of thirty-four poems by award-winning Alabama poet and writer Jeanie Thompson in the voice of world-renowned Alabamian Helen Keller. In their sweep, the poems trace Keller’s metamorphosis from a native of a bucolic Alabama town to her emergence as a beloved, international figure who championed the rights of the deaf-blind worldwide. Thompson’s artfully concatenated vignettes form a mosaic that maps the insightful mind behind the elegant and enigmatic persona Keller projected. Thompson takes readers on the journey of Keller’s life, from some of the thirty-seven countries she visited, including the British Isles, Europe, and Japan to the wellsprings of her emotional awakening and insight. The poems are paired with fascinating biographical anecdotes from Keller’s life and samplings from her writing, which infuse the work with richly-rewarding biographical detail. The poems in The Myth of Water reveal the discerning subtlety, resiliency, and complexity of the person Thompson perceives Helen Keller to have been. Through a combination of natural intuition, manual signs, Braille alphabets, and lip reading, Keller came to grasp the revolving tapestry of the seasons and the infinite colors of human relationships. Not a biography or a fictional retelling, The Myth of Water attempts to unlock what moved Keller to her life of service and self-examination. This is a deeply personal story of coming throughnot overcominga double disability to a fully realized life in which a woman gives her heart to the world.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Jeanie Thompson is the author of The Seasons Bear Us, White for Harvest: New and Selected Poems, Witness, Litany for a Vanishing Landscape, How to Enter the River, and Lotus and Psalm. Her poems have been published in Whatever Remembers Us, High Horse, Working the Dirt, and The Best of Crazyhorse, among others. She teaches at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program and is the founding executive director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a statewide literary arts service organization.
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The Myth of Water
Poems from the Life of Helen Keller
By Jeanie Thompson
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
YOU ARE HELEN 1880–1917
After her graduation from Radcliff (cum laude) in 1904, Keller and Anne Sullivan purchased a farm at Wrentham, Massachusetts. A year later Sullivan married John Macy, who helped Keller edit her first two books. During this time Peter Fagan, a man seven years Keller's junior, began working as a secretary to Keller, Sullivan, and John Macy. Keller and Fagan began a love affair in Wrentham that concluded unhappily in Montgomery, Alabama, when their plan to elope was either foiled or abandoned. Overlapping with her time in Montgomery from fall 1916 until later in 1917, Keller was also separated for about five months from Teacher who convalesced from exhaustion and respiratory disease in Puerto Rico. While Keller was a public figure in her sister's hometown, she struggled to reconcile lost love and temporary separation from Teacher. When Sullivan returned in 1917, they sold Wrentham and moved to New York.
Love is what animates all life — it is not outside of us — separate from us. It is us.
— Helen Keller, from My Religion
Memory of Ivy Green
The first time I entered a wave
my feet swept up under me
by a force stronger than wind
or Mother's arms —
nothing held me —
The salt water touched me
like an earlier time, featureless air,
a bland surging engulfed me,
just a babe — who could know
anything of loneliness or death?
I was alone, tumbling
in the deep element of myself.
When my little feet found no bottom,
no sand scratched my toes —
cut lose — returned to an elemental pulse —
with no thought of exit,
played across the bathroom floor —
I toddled forward, arms outstretched —
Then this —
the receding sound of Mother's
breath at the phantom's ear —
These she cannot claim,
they are not hers,
language has not taken her —
little soul cast off into the deep
ocean of herself,
no mooring, no anchor.
First Dream of the Tennessee
There is a river in Alabama I remember — those rocks
my feet found, with her hand steadying me to that current's
cold muscle taking me this way and that.
Sun on my face, my hair lifted the mud's ancient odor,
said move with me.
I cannot return to who I was. In the garden of my home place
I had groped without self, without Helen, only need
and want. When Teacher dragged this phantom
to the pump and poured w-a-t-e-r into its impatient hand,
my mind cracked, like a bird's egg. This
I try to tell — but you can never know. I was
diving into that name.
I couldn't know then ... Still, my feet steadied
on bare rocks, knew the river's rich pull.
How would it be possible
to return there, the syllables whispering in my palm
over and over, you are Helen, of this Earth.
At Wrentham, I learn the firs,
how days arrange themselves to ease
and seize us. A mourning dove
gives up the night, Teacher says. Above,
a plucked vine quivers. Sweet, these.
My best friend's husband, beset
by fever to escape — leaves, returns, teases
her. Then you appear, spelling I am here
The world I know scatters like leaves
torn by storm from the trees, but a choice
shelters me. I learn a song composed of
days attuned for love —
believe a woman could be free
To Peter Fagan
Into my hand the stars poured light
and I knew you,
or so I thought.
There was no way for you to know my darkness,
understand my silence, but you persisted with your
You shook language
in my face and asked me to dance syntax
with you. Dark dancer, I followed your lead,
and if you could have seen what I knew
through our touch, we would've been one!
The night comes, I dress, remember my valise,
and quietly work my way down the stairs
guided by your presence in me. Alabama
again is a place to flee.
Alone on Sister's front porch,
without Teacher, scent of tea olive lingering, your promises
fade into morning's traffic, until you are no more
than a rumble from the street
Let loss, only loss,
guide me. Not to be yours,
Helen, not to be yours, this day.
Montgomery, Alabama, 1916
I listen to the pin oak, waiting
for any sign of you, the notice of Teacher's
hand pressing your letter into mine
from your pen-scratched ink
spells your blood and bone motion in my palm.
The oak's movement in the faltering breeze
makes a language I try to translate, roots
studying the depths of earth,
bark ungiving, rough branches
moving as if cracked off
by the wind. My boot-toe snags a loop.
I will not stop listening to this tree,
overgrown with herself and filled with
her coursing thoughts and murmurs. How
can I turn away from such offers?
You are silent. If I never learn
one fraction more of your soul's equation —
you I know.
From the deep beneath me
the tree holds herself still.
The letter you do not send, the ink erases
itself, Teacher's hand rests curled, cupped
in her palm. I press fingers against the nubbled bark that spells
an unintelligible line like I sometimes remember doing
when I awaken.
Teacher's Letter from Puerto Rico
"I go to bed every night soaked with sunshine and orange blossoms, and fall to sleep to the soporific sound of oxen munching banana leaves."
— Anne Sullivan Macy, letter to Helen Keller, 1917
I translated the world for you.
Here you need no translation.
In tropical rain and heat,
wake or dream, free of both you and me.
Here you need no translation,
here the sun drenches the senses —
Free of us both,
the stars pour out for me like wine.
Here the sun drenches all —
I am open, alive.
I wake to the stars' heat,
and good health freely given,
like rain, in the stars,
touch, speaking easily
as birds sing in later afternoon light.
How did we grow so far from ourselves, Helen?
Our fingers could read
our moist life like the Psalms.
Easy touch —
the island waking.
I am free here, free and consoled.
Palm Sunday 1917
Just tell them, The Lord needs it — just tell them.
It's a simple task you perform.
Today without you I am as useless as a broken pot.
Outside Jerusalem today they went looking without Jesus for a colt.
Could this unbroken animal teach them?
Just tell them, The Lord needs it.
Cutting palms, they spread the branches for his feet.
I know those feet, and how they make me turn.
Today, without you, I am as useless.
Today we are called to the passion, to believe —
Even a woman, alone, can claim,
Just tell them, The Lord needs it.
I was walking with them, spreading sharp
palm fronds for his feet. I was happy, hopeless, crying,
Today without you, I am.
With you there was an island of joy, but here my heart
widens sorrow where I would be freed. There will be freedom
today without you, one I loved.
Just tell them, the Lords needs it.
Imaginary Letter to John Hitz
The greatest word of Jesus to His disciples is abandon.
This is a line I caught today from one of your meditations.
That someone would think of a single
greatest word of Jesus clarifies the world.
This is a line I caught today from one of your meditations
about abandon releases the world —
a greatest word that clarifies Jesus
then goes on to clear a path for us.
About abandon and release, the world
can never agree, never resolve or abide.
The word clears a path for us.
About the earth's touch, its taste, its very smell, we
can never agree, never resolve or abide.
Each day you send me a meditation
about the earth's touch, its taste, its very smell.
We exchange words like this, pierced in paper.
Each day you send me a meditation.
In this way I can abandon the world.
I read your words on my fingertips.
That someone would think of a single word —
The greatest word of Jesus to His disciples is abandon.
Encounter in Montgomery
Walking in Sister's yard, I found a plant I couldn't name —
the foliage billowed like nothing I knew, frothed
in plumes with tiniest bracts — asparagus? No, celery,
I exclaimed. But, it wasn't. When I put my face
into the spray, it was cool on my eyelids,
a spring of delicate mist. Teacher might say,
Within each plume a blush of rust suggests itself,
then hides in the cloud of green. I didn't expect
a plant that felt like coolest peace, without a leaf
discernible, with only the sketch of itself to breathe.
Oh, the fennel, Sister said, later. And I knew
the fragrant pillow of it was as tangible
as the thought of him I had let go, let drift out
The Little Boy Next Door
After a black and white photograph of Helen with an unidentified child
I knew first from a distance his ramble across the yard
toward the porch to sit with me on the rock wall:
his smell of infant sweat and something else, a milk
musk mixed with his mother's talc
and the dark rich dirt from the backyard arbor.
He played there late. When I moved
in my garden, touching the rose trees to shake their
fragrance at close of day, he ran
quickly to nestle against my skirt, his small dumb
hand patting my thigh to signal, I am here.
One day a visitor thought to photograph us
and so we posed as I imagine a mother
and child do for a memory book. His warm, damp
body next to me, he pressed his head against
my breast with a quiet knowledge, let me finger
his toes to feel dust powered there and learn
where he had played.
I was younger then,
and felt the quickening of a mother's desire for his
small body on hers.
Later, when you did not arrive
to take me from Alabama, I mourned the child lost
to me. There would be no difference to lose him — one I would
never have — or that child, pressed from my body,
the dark smell rising to tell me at last who I am.
Excerpted from The Myth of Water by Jeanie Thompson. Copyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Writing about Helen Keller xv
Important Texts xvii
Chronology of Helen Keller's Life xix
Prologue: Practicing Speech 1
I You are Helen: 1880-1917
Memory of Ivy Green 9
First Dream of the Tennessee 11
At Wrentham 12
This Day 13
Teacher's Letter from Puerto Rico 16
Soliloquy: Palm Sunday 1917 18
Imaginary Letter to John Hitz 19
Encounter in Montgomery 20
The Little Boy Next Door 21
II Bridge: Helen Keller's Journal, 1936-1957
First Entry, after Midnight 27
The Not-You 28
Another Country 29
Dream of the Manse Children Talking 30
The Exquisite Instrument chat Makes an Ear 31
Fragment of an afternoon at Musee Rodin, Paris, with Gutzon Borelum 32
Enrico Caruso Remembers Helen Keller 34
Imaginary Farewell from Russell Cone to Helen Keller 36
River, Bridge, and Sky 38
I Promised 40
III Your Light: 1943-1948
From a Japanese Child along the Parade Route 45
Late Elegy for FDR 47
First Light at the Shinto Shrine for A.S.M. 48
IV Coming Through Fire: Circa 1955
One Word 55
Our Hands 56
V Tell the World: 1950-Present Day
Jo Davidson's Letter from Florence, Italy 61
Helen's Meditation in the Marble Quarry, Carrara, Italy 62
With the Martha Graham Dance Company 64
In Which Helen Puts to Rest the Mirror 65
What Helen Saw / What Helen Said 66
The Myth of W-a-t-e-r 68
Coda: In Terra Cotta 69
Biographical Note 73