A review of Diving At The Lip of The Water by Karen Poppy

Reviewed by Lisbeth Colman

Diving At The Lip of The Water,
by Karen Poppy
Beltway Editions
May 2023, ISBN: 978-1-957372-03-7,

Reading Diving at the Lip of The Water by Karen Poppy is submerging oneself in the complexities of family relationships and the transformative power of self-examination. In this delicate poetry collection, politics of gender intersect with the pervasive issues of intergenerational dysfunctionality. 

The collection is divided in five parts, each exploring an aspect of the poet’s identity. In Part I delicate imagery like pebbles, diving, family names start giving form to ancestry, sexuality, ethnicity, and complex family relations that define Poppy’s voice. We are in the presence of a Jewish matriarchy that has created chaos for the next generations:

At the end of life, Sable leader passes matriarchy 
To one female in the group, who takes on her traits,
That female becomes dark and bold, more like male.

The first poems in the book serve as a warning. What we are about to read might not be comfortable or sweet. Poppy does this with the dexterity of surgeon, sparing us the filigree and offering the bare bone of her craft: “I was 19 when I finally kissed a woman.” Before introducing the characters of her childhood and the intricacies of family dynamics based on secrecy, she proceeds to uncover her truth with pride. A distinctively queer voice opens to reveal her first sexual experience in precise, succinct language. Fingers crack open the oyster, tongue looks for pearl, young and inexperienced, the queer instinct guide the first steps of the young woman discovering her sexuality. “salted raw and delicious,”. . .”your knees draw up, and you pose,” . . . “your soft, open delicacy.”

The women of the family hold secrets that start with abandonment and disappointment, “broken of love and trust,” “uncomfortable—like my father’s hands / on her throat.” These women also examine their heritage beyond the ethnic features  “my grandmother examines / Her Jewish nose / In the mirror,” with a word of cautious, “to look beyond your nose is dangerous. / The Holocaust is great, larger than us.”

Part II of the book deals exclusively with sexuality and complex family relations of elder women reluctantly mothering grandchildren, “unnatural-born heir,” “that could not be worthy,” 

I am yours, plucked from the gutters
A queer motherfucker.
I can’t forget this.

Poppy’s voice reveals she has tried to pass, “invisible in this / Locker / The only way.” Until she dives into her sexual fluidity. “Diving at the Lip of Water” is a complex poem that interprets female homosexuality by deconstructing the language traditionally used to explain it, “Bulldagger,” and “bulldyke.” These images have deprived the lesbian out of her humanity for too long, and Poppy is here to reclaim it in a long poem that presents itself as a manifesto: 

No matter what I call myself, I am marked.
I bleed monthly. I’ve been attacked with 
Thrown stone, called a dyke. I swagger
Womanly, and I love a woman, but
I am not one. I swagger, and I shift.
. . .

Also like me,
Who don’t fit evenly,
Who shift and move,
Without gender, and 
Within sexuality.”

In Part III, the  voice revisits the role of poetry in the examination of identity rooted in pain. 

“For we work / Close to the pain. / Closer than anybody.” It embarks in the excavation of both molestation and sexual assault, as well as death and grief, all carried in the legacy of a family name. “Our names a pus-curse on this town.” In its mission, the poet is the David in front of the Goliath with only “small, round rock,” a strong voice, dangerous as a weapon, “a slingshot,” and the poet is her “own avenging angel.”

Part IV the writer decides to dive in her testimony without leaving behind any unspoken truth. What with all self-examination still the voice declares failure in love. Finally, Part V speaks of the transformative power of revisiting identity.  

Karen Poppy doesn’t spare the reader of discomfort and grimaces when exploring her identity. She courageously uncovers the secrets of the women in her family, like one who skins the animals in the collection. However, in the last two parts, the poet shows what the healing process looks like and presents us a strong voice protected by the elegance of language, and those extraordinary Voltas at the end of poems.

Those looking for trauma harvesting might be disappointed. Karen Poppy seems to underscore that lives don’t need to be traumatic to be complex, that we rise beyond linear definitions of identity. Exploring a fluid sexuality, ethnicity, family dysfunctionality, and all the skeletons in the ancestry closet the poet deconstructs familial myths, and language restrictions to grow and discover her true voice.

About the reviewer: Lisbeth Coiman is a a bilingual author and an avid reader. Her debut book, I Asked the Blue Heron: A Memoir (2017) explores the intersection between immigration and mental health. Her poetry collection, Uprising / Alzamiento (Finishing Line Press, 2021) raises awareness of the humanitarian crisis in her homeland. Her book reviews have been published in The New York Journal of Books, Citron Review, The Journal of Radical Wonder. She lives in Los Angeles, where she works, hikes, and writes erotica for fun.