WATER LESSONS reviewed by Michael Collins:
Beneath the obvious beauty of Lisa Dordal’s poetry lies a subtle ferocity that threatens to undo the reader on every page of Water Lessons. “Anyone can become / animal or a flicker of light” warns the speaker as she embarks on a journey of recovery: of the memories surrounding a mother’s addiction and death; of a father’s dementia, which softens him even as it steals him away; and of the speaker’s own complicity in mid-century suburban oblivion, a complicity that makes both a mother’s and a Black maid’s miseries equally tragic. Dordal demands that we not only see the past, but that we step into its deceptively gentle tide, one that sweeps us back to the people, places, and eras that still haunt us. In these poems, no one is truly safe, no one is truly innocent, and no one is truly gone. Water Lessons teaches us that swimming against the current of remembrance is futile. We can only trust the water to hold us without drowning us, and to return us to some shore, even if where we land is not where we were first submerged.
—Destiny O. Birdsong, author of Negotiations, longlisted for the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards
Water Lessons provides one of the most profound encounters with the human psyche we’ve found on the page. If you remember flipping through vintage anatomy textbooks, the kind with transparent pages of organs and muscles and bones, then you might begin to understand how Lisa Dordal’s poems work their magic—by clear and accurate layering of what is past pressed against what is present, the inner workings of the human condition are mapped with stunning veracity. At the core of this oscillation between here and there, then and now, is a mother’s long-ago but still deeply felt death and a father’s dementia—an ache that admits ‘there is no such thing / as a half-life for grief,’ a confluence of time that can no longer tell the difference between love or death, ‘like seeing stars // reflected on a smooth surface / of water, and not knowing / if you’re looking at the sea / or the sky.’ This book will leave you stunned and aching in its wake. What conjuring. What insight. What truth, unmarred and deeply examined.
—Nickole Brown, author of Fanny Says & Jessica Jacobs, author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going
In Lisa Dordal’s stunning second collection Water Lessons, she pivots from the political to the personal, from despair to unapologetic delight, revealing that one cannot exist without the other. In the title poem “Water Lessons” she writes, “In Leningrad, I was told not to drink / the water. It could cause illness; / in rare cases, death” ending the poem, “I drank the water”: both a confession and reclamation of self, as if to create an inventory of what might cause harm, and then walk us directly into the damage. In this way, Dordal tends to the messy and uncertain realms of the heart, capturing what it is to long for what we know will hurt us, and how we are nourished by that longing: “Remember mother // contains not just the sea / but the darkness of the sea. // And there is no such thing / as a half-life for grief.” I read Water Lessons the way I would look through an old family photo album; the ache of nostalgia and regret in one hand, joy and forgiveness in the other. Lisa Dordal is a poet of exquisite craft and grace, unafraid to face what haunts her, knowing that this is where the treasure lies. This book is the treasure.
—Kendra DeColo, author of I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World
“Humming with inspired metaphors and everyday relevance, these poems are gems.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“It’s difficult to make a poetics out of forgiveness, but that’s what Lisa Dordal accomplishes in her new collection, Mosaic of the Dark. Beneath her poems’ crystalline, unmottled veneers, subtle violences are perpetrated in the name of love and fear, carried out by family and near strangers.” —Bobby Rogers in “To Call Forth By Noticing” for Chapter 16
“Dordal’s strength is in refusing to look away from the truth.” —Alicia Marie Brandewie in The Nashville Review
“Mosaic of the Dark is a portrait of a young woman emerging from the constrictions of family and cultural expectations into her own authentic self. But these poems do not stop there. Lisa Dordal empathizes with the grouchy cashier at the toy and candy store of her childhood: how can I not/ admire her for her refusal/ to feign contentment; she crouches at the bars of a boy’s prison cell: I hear him breathing, telling him:/ it is a beautiful sound; she wonders if houseflies might be sent by the angels: their thousands and thousands of eyes—make a mosaic of the dark. While this collection is well-rooted in personal experience, the poems branch out with an empathetic and precisely observant heart to give us a glimpse of the mysterious world that threads through us all.” —Ellen Bass
“In Lisa Dordal’s Mosaic of the Dark, desire transfigures the world we believe we know. The boy at the center of the poem is a stand-in for God. A mother is a place we’ve left. Two black horses in a cave are manifest, and what cannot be undone is as plain and secret as history itself. Here a bird drags its universe of feathers across the yard, and Dordal is the breath that sends them aloft like prayer.” —Traci Brimhall
“Lisa Dordal’s Mosaic of the Dark is actually a book of light. Dordal means to illuminate the quotidian until it is as luminescent as any spiritual experience: “I dream of flight. A sun/that can hold a million earths/and a mouth that swallows its fire.” This is the eye of a poet looking to her work for redemption and grace. Mosaic of the Dark is a beautiful book.” —Jericho Brown