The Water People, Vénus Khoury-GhataThe jacket is bright red, no images. The main text is white and printed landscape from bottom running upwards. The author's name is first and largest in caps over two lines. Then the title in lower case, then the title in French in italics. Information about publisher is at the top of the page positioned in the ordinary way but very small light caps. At the foot of the jacket are similarly presented details of the translator.
(translated by Marilyn Hacker)

The Poetry Translation Centre, 2022     £9.00

Interpret as you please

This is a sequence of poems that don’t have titles, only a line of asterisks to introduce each one. Individual pieces are like folk tales without easy morals, or allegories where the meaning/metaphor is not straightforward. The reader is urged to see the world as the water people do:

Weep as if the river had entered you
say the water people
And leave your voice behind to listen better when it rains

the water people took their codes from the first willow

The poems are set exclusively within the water people’s experience and understanding, but there are nods to our own superstitions:

the women of the water people draw their night-time faces
with the soot of their casseroles
their handprint a four-leaf clover on the small of the back of
the man sleeping belly-down on his own exhaustion

There are also, in passing, more explicit mentions of the world beyond/before/to come and of the water people’s ability to choose the meaning from it they want (and/or inability to hear), echoing the reader’s experience — ‘the water people interpret as they please the words gathered / from the stranger’s lips /
their deafness protects them from disappointment’ [p. 23].

In terms of finding my own interpretation, I think the following poem may be about abortion. That is the meaning I choose today, but am I unable to ‘hear’ other meanings because I can’t ‘leave [my] voice behind’?

The woman who pierces the water with her stick encounters a
lower country
the child curled up in himself laughs to see himself so dead
she would call to him if her mouth were not full of bees

with the axe hidden under her skirt
she will kill the bumblebee
bring the honey back to the hive
erase with one swipe the man who licks up his descendants
between her knees
     [p. 35]

We’re told that ‘the water people draw their beliefs from the shadow moving forward […] you’re free to follow them’ [p. 35]. To me, this book is like a bowl of moving shadows, in which I see different things different days. I will return to it.

Ramona Herdman