Friday, January 11, 2013

2013 Contenders: Water Sings Blue, by Kate Coombs

"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by."

"For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea."

Admission: I have a great weakness for sea poetry. Like Melville's Ishmael, "when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Or at least to seek out some nautical literature.

And sea poets, in turn, seem to have a weakness for formal meter and rhyme. Maybe it's something about the rhythm of the sea itself, but look at those two excerpts above, from poems by John Masefield and e. e. cummings. Don't they just capture the great, surging rhythm of the world's oceans? I think so.

So it was with great pleasure that I opened Water Sings Blue to find that Kate Coombs has chosen to write about the sea in rhyming, metered verse. It feels like there's not a lot of "serious" modern children's poetry that rhymes. Plenty of light verse and nonsense verse rhymes, of course. But when children's poets get all SRS BSNS, they seem to feel the need to do so in free verse.

Not that Water Sings Blue is uniformly serious. To paraphrase one of the reviews, it has as many moods as the sea. While the individual poems vary in tone, though, they are united by the poet's arresting use of imagery and metaphor. "Please, O Lord," entreats a fish in "Prayer of the Little Fish. "Protect me from / the high, dry, breathless air." Breathless air, y'all. That knocks me out.

At its best, the musicality of Coombs' language adds another layer of meaning to the poems. In "Sand's Story" she writes, "Now we grind and we grumble / humbled and grave, / at the touch of our breaker / and maker, the wave." All that alliteration and internal rhyme just reinforces the relentlessness of a force that slowly crumbles mountains.

And yet... and yet. Despite the gorgeousness of the language, despite the stunning imagery... not all of this verse scans properly. In fact, quite often, it doesn't. "I'm going shopping at the tide pool. / They carry everything there - " My, that feels awkward. Incongruously awkward, given the talent of the poet and her attention to detail otherwise.

Ultimately, though, the weird scansion is not nearly enough to sink this pretty little book. No pun intended. Content trumps form for me, so it's definitely among my top ten of the year. As for Newbery... well, it's a strong year and poetry rarely medals, but I'd be happy to see a silver Honor sticker on the cover of this one.

(Thanks to reader Brandy for the recommendation!)

1 comment:

  1. Yay! I'm happy you enjoyed it. I love all of Kate's books, but this one might have stayed under may radar simply because I'm not a big poetry person. It was my daughter who made me sit down and read it more than once, and that's what caused me to fall in love with it. She has read it practically memorized by this point. I do agree wholeheartedly with all you said here.