May 10, 2022

“Rough Waters” by Rachel Zucker

Joan Biddle

“Rough Waters” by Rachel Zucker is a 19-page prose poem that explores the events surrounding a friend’s funeral in Hawaii. 

In cinematic and dreamlike prose, the speaker tries to wrap her head around what is happening, the fact that this person has died. She has trouble feeling grief or feeling anything at all, and instead aims her focus on what’s happening around her: the people, the conversations, a woman who looks Hawaiian, a woman being photographed on a stone smashed by waves, a toddler standing on a surfboard, swimmers (“And who is watching to see if all the swimmers that go out come back?”), the color of the ocean that changes throughout the day, her fellow mourners asking whether they should wash the plastic forks. 

Impossible. His physical presence. Good in person. The ocean is not one thing. 

In old home movies, “His voice is the same. / The same as what?”  

The speaker admits her own awkwardness in dealing with the events (“I touch her shoulder in a creepy way.”) In writing around the subject, Zucker memorializes and celebrates the person who has died. 

Probably my favorite lines are: “The ocean has different areas with different qualities. It is not one thing.” The area that maybe took him is different from this innocuous area, here, where the speaker is, by the shore. 

The ocean is what it is, vast and all-containing. I love this about the ocean. I love that it’s cold in one spot, then warm in another. In one area, fish nibble at your legs and feet, while in another, there’s nothing but cool saltwater, glimmering and quiet with a million invisible living things.  

“I am alive to see this. / I am here to see this because he is not alive.” Zucker contrasts her being alive with his not. She can’t fathom that it’s happening, nor that she’s in this beautiful place for such a reason. 

If the ocean is many things, everyone is one thing. “I lie in bed thinking about how the word everyone is singular. How little sense this makes.” In this moment, she and her friends and even her loved ones far away are one entity, one group, one thing. They’re experiencing this together. Our one sun. 

Zucker inserts blanks for what she cannot say, for what cannot be said, because it would be too mundane, too definitive, too wrong. “The lesson to learn is ________.”

What is the lesson to learn, if there is any? The words love, and wildly, and with abandon are offered. How must one love? In “some way other than the way one mostly loves or has loved.”

The mourners are now in the rough waters, where they “swim out calling his name.”

The poem “Rough Waters” appears in Rachel Zucker’s SoundMachine, published by Wave Books in 2019.

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