The Transparency of Windows, a review of Watering the Dead

The Transparency of Windows

By Valerie Lawson

from Off the Coast, Winter 2009

Watering the Dead is Jason Irwin’s first book and winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award from Pavement Saw Press. Essentially about discovery, the book opens with “Nothing I Thought I Knew," when John Lennon was shot and the nine year old narrator becomes aware of himself in a much larger world. Irwin carefully draws the line between what was to what is now and invites us to step across.

Nothing I thought I knew before mattered
that somehow I was saved.

If “Nothing I Thought I Knew” catches the child up to the past, “First Communion” prepares the child for the future, ready to be let into the world in a borrowed suite the color of grandfather’s Pontiac:

I knew it was only a matter of time
before I walked on water, healed the sick,
died the hero’s death.

In “Main Street,” we glimpse the sharp edged transparency of windows, where we see faces of the children moved on, but still trapped.

I can still see them:
faces and fists pressed against the glass.

This section closes with “Watching My Mother Sleep.”

I wonder
if she still dreams
the dreams of childhood:
of ballerinas and tea parties.

The poems in the second section are more distant from their subjects. “With My Father” precisely maps the distance between father and son in a sting of declarative sentences:

Three blocks away, a place
called McNabb's. We sit
near the neon window. He
orders a Labatt’s Blue and I a Black
and Tan.

The son explores their differences, searches for whatever they might have in common, and comes to reconciliation in childhood memory, father and son walking to the beach:

I rode atop his shoulders…
like a living totem pole.

A more mature voice in the third section ends the book with
“Going Home.” Despite change, faces stay much the same. People
talk of leaving but don’t:

Maybe it’s the view of the hills to the south,
…that keep us here,
or maybe it’s the sound of my own voice,
reciting the streets named for birds and fish
as if they were the names of saints.

In Watering the Dead, Jason Irwin joins the ranks of some of the finest contemporary narrative poets like David Surrette, Matt Oldsman, Jack McCarthy, and Philip Levine. This book makes your heart ache, makes you wish you could have another go at childhood and this time get it right, but in the end we realize we are the products of our childhoods and the cities and towns where we were raised.