The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller

The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller

by Jeanie Thompson

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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 through—not overcoming—a double disability to a fully realized life in which a woman gives her heart to the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358570
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/15/2016
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 104
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.

Read an Excerpt

The Myth of Water

Poems from the Life of Helen Keller

By Jeanie Thompson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8992-5


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

    Tuscumbia, Alabama

    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 —
    I was
    cut lose — returned to an elemental pulse —
    with no thought of exit,
    or birth.

    Flickering leaves
    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


    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
    at Wrentham.

    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
    at Wrentham.

    This Day

    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
    questions, probing.

    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
    signaling day.
    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,
    birds' tongues

    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
    and away.

    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

Silence 14

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

Returnings 35

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

Reproach 46

Late Elegy for FDR 47

First Light at the Shinto Shrine for A.S.M. 48

IV Coming Through Fire: Circa 1955

Hunger 53

Teacher 54

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

Acknowledgments 71

Biographical Note 73

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