Three Bath Poems (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: POETRY)

Issue #119
Winter 2012-2013

In poetry, our winner is Jen Silverman, for her series of Bath poems.

Ploughshares poetry editor John Skoyles writes: “Silverman’s poems have a declarative force and a surprise in every phrase, a combination that results in a tone both intimate and astonishing.”

Silverman is a New York–based poet and playwright who has, so far, mainly received attention for her work in the theater. Her full-length play Crane Story premiered off-Broadway in 2011 with The Playwrights Realm, and her one-act, The Education of Macoloco, won the 2009 Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival. She is currently working on her first book of poems. The Bath series in Ploughshares is her first poetry publication.

“I’m fascinated by bathing as a ritual and ceremonial act as much as a sensuous one,” Silverman writes. “As someone who has studied martial arts on and off since childhood, I heard again and again that good martial artists move like water—with grace, malleable and adaptable, claiming nothing, tied to nothing, but capable of great concentrated force. Particularly given my own nomadic upbringing, I’m fascinated by a narrator who moves like water through a world of encounters that, even as they slide away, leave a lasting mark on her.”

Bath 3 (Iowa City)

That winter a fever came
and didn’t depart till spring
everything happened through a curtain

the bills the rent the love affairs with men
I couldn’t keep separate in my mind
I’d never liked blonds

but they were so bright they caught my eye
like lucky coins I plucked them up and
there you go next thing you don’t know

one from the other and blame it on the fever but
the sensitive ones will leave your bed and go
out into the cold, hearts bruised, and what can you do

I went back to bed that winter
I ran baths late at night then didn’t undress
sat at the edge of the tub and watched the water

quiver like a fugitive, I don’t remember that I
ever saw my reflection
in the spring the fever left

everything was clear-edged and merciless
and I picked my lovers for their black hair
and their black black eyes


Bath 4 (Kentucky)

They dropped you in the river. They said
Praise Jesus, Praise Him. You bobbed up

half drowned. You had seen clearly from
the bottom. Through the silt. Somewhere in

the river mud, you lost your God. So here
we are. And your long bones are light.

You are no longer tethered to this world.
You have un-believed yourself into liberty.

It does not feel like victory, you say,
to go from believing everything to nothing.

You doubt the reality of the sun, the wine,
your own long fingers, the rich moss, ice.

You return to water. Always, the water’s edge.
And I trail after, afraid you’ll stumble in,

reel yourself back to the bottom, back to a
reckoning, your face against the silt, your fingers

combing through riverweed. I run you a bath.
I step into it in your stead. I lie at the

bottom, staring up through clear water, toward
the windows. I see nothing,

I see nothing but light.


Bath 5 (New Hampshire)

If it’s one drink, it will be two. Wisteria tangling
around your wrists. Here is where you buried your

father. Here is where you buried your brother.
Here is where they will bury you, when the

time comes. No wonder you drink yourself down
toward the earth. Home is where the shovels lie.

Earth and earth and earth. Stones crowd your sleep.
Granite and salt, sand giving birth to

the fortress where even your lovers sigh. Silent
underfoot. You dream yourself toward them.

You are foxfire, you are phosphorescent. Your
mouth like whiskey. Your eyes like whiskey.

You baptize yourself in sorrow, again and again.
You baptize yourself with bourbon and brandy.

You swim downward, fast salmon, heedless, handsome,
death is in you, it has captured your ear. You have your

father’s jaw, your brother’s chin. When you were born
they bathed your small body with their fears.

Each scar they’d earned became manifest on your skin.
Their love aches like a badly set bone. When the river takes

you, it will be no new baptism. Just that same, ancient sacrifice.
Just that rush, that rushing, and then you are gone.