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ISBN: 978-1-62557-031-4
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Categories Poetry

Water Lessons

Publication Date: March 2022



Through deeply personal and culturally grounded narratives, Water Lessons explores the relationship between reality and imagination, faith and doubt, presence and absence, as the speaker grapples with multiple dimensions of grief arising from her mother’s alcoholism and eventual death; her father’s deepening dementia; and her own childlessness. Against the backdrop of these personal griefs, the speaker scrutinizes the patriarchal underpinnings of the world she grew up in as well as her complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the 70s and 80s. Woven throughout the book are the speaker’s meditations on a divine presence that, for her, is both keenly felt and necessarily elusive, mirroring the speaker’s ultimate celebration of her unborn daughter as a “lovely fiction” who is both here and not here.


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

About the Author

Lisa Dordal

Lisa Dordal holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Fine Arts (in poetry), both from Vanderbilt University, and teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt. She is the author of Mosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, Water Lessons (April 2022), and Next Time You Come Home (forthcoming 2023), all from Black Lawrence Press. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in The Sun, Narrative, Image, The New Ohio Review, Best New Poets, Greensboro Review, RHINO, Ninth Letter, and CALYX. Her website is lisadordal.com.

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