Eliza Griswold, “Water Table”

With thanks to Lorianne Ochmanski

Water Table (from Poetry)
Eliza Griswold

My earliest wish was not to exist,
to burst in the backyard
without violence,
no blood, no fleshy bits,
mute button pressed
alone behind the rectory
where no one would see me.

This wasn’t a plea to be found
or mourned for, but to be unborn
into the atmosphere. To hang
in the humid air, as ponds vent upward
from the overheated earth,
rise until they freeze
and crystallize, then drop
into the aquifer.


When Lorianne and I discussed this poem, we talked about how sad it seemed. Some kind of philosophical or existential depression is involved? Our speaker talks about her “earliest wish” – her first wish! – as “not to exist.” Then the rest of the poem is her describing how that might happen.

That’s pretty depressing, but things get weird on closer inspection. It’s difficult to pinpoint the drama (speaking seriously). Later in the poem, she talks about motive obliquely. She wants no attention of an intellectual (“to be found”) or an emotional (“mourned for”) sort. In the first stanza, she focuses on the action of the suicide. She talks about bursting “without violence.” No remnant of anything human or animal, whether object or sound. Where this is supposed to happen stands out – “alone behind the rectory.” There’s too much that can be read into that one detail, but the lack of wanting anything people might see or hear, the lack of anger and hate, suggests two things: shame is somehow involved, as is the sacred.

And yet I don’t think this is necessarily a poem about abuse, though one might read it way. “Not to be” is offered by a number of ancient Greek sources as the pinnacle of happiness. Not surprisingly, this is connected with piety and tragedy. Oedipus, who more than likely regretted his birth, identified the riddle as man. He didn’t understand “man,” he just answered and rearticulated the riddle. He certainly didn’t understand himself, how his transgressions made him something inhuman (an attempt to be god? sleeping with mom and killing dad?) and those very same transgressions – that want of control – marked him as human. “Not to be” can be seen as the heart of the sacred, that we are always shameful and should be ashamed, that redemption and freedom require a singular peace with the divine. (If this narrative sounds like it bridges Christianity and paganism, it does. It’s coming from Nietzsche.)

Our speaker’s morbid wish turned into a kind of strength. That’s the second stanza, which in detailing an awful wish points to how it is more than that. “To be unborn” is a nearly cynical take on being born again, but only nearly. Her separation of air, water and earth mirrors Creation. The cycle of renewal she details is likewise sacred. Water leaves the “overheated” earth and rises until it freezes and becomes solid again. It looks like she wants her passions and their extremes to be freeing for her and useful to others. To locate the aquifer is not to identify with some nihilistic atomization. The aquifer allows for groundwater, for life on earth. The answer to a desire to “not to be” is to embrace that things change, that we don’t get what we want, that our passions do not need to be tied to a good or even an extremely specific sense of justice. It’s good that we’re inconstant beings; any more constancy and we would not exist in time.

1 Comment

  1. This is a gorgeously written poem. And yet I don’t like it. Your commentaries usually clarify certain aspects of the poems you choose that help me understand them more deeply. However, in this case your commentary was effective but didn’t change my feeling about it. Perhaps I was looking for that lift I enjoy so much about poetry that I didn’t find, and perhaps that is the author’s intention.

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