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Review: David Shumate’s HIGH WATER MARK

David Shumate, High Water Mark (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). 69 pp. ISBN 0-8229-5858-9.




Although it is a collection of prose poems, David Shumate's High Water Mark is an exceptional resource for flash fiction and prose poem writers alike. His economic use of words and detailed imagery and characterization yield work that can be considered both prose-like poetry and poetic prose. These poetic stories break the boundaries between genres, resulting in powerful stories of relationships, inner thoughts and desires, belief and what it means to be human.


In "Polka-Dot Shirt," a returning solider discovers that his suitcase was switched with someone else's at the airport. As he makes love to a girl from the hotel bar, all he can think of is the absurd articles of clothing at his disposal, one being the polka-dotted shirt. Although this piece contains the usual absurdity found in poetry, it is the particular moments when the character shaves his head or looks in the mirror, eluding to themes of lost identify or self-recognition, that makes this poem a story.


This poem is also indicative of a larger prose-like theme in Shumate's work, which is the strength of its characters. Many of the poems are based on well-known figures, particularly writers, and illustrations of their secret thoughts and desires. These character poems include "What Hemingway Learned from Cezanne," "All Seas Belong to Neruda," "Hitler's Barber," "Ferlinghetti's Ears," "Custer," "With Fitzgerald along the Cote d'Azur," and "Mornings with Freud." "Hitler's Barber" is a particularly powerful depiction of his barber's sinister thoughts of slashing Hitler's throat, "an act that would have saved the lives of millions." "Ferlinghetti's Ears" is an absurdist account of his collection of ears, "conches from the shores of Indonesia," or "flesh and velvet," that travel to various times and places to capture the stories of the world. "With Fitzgerald" captures the writer in the whimsical world of Gatsby, with "lights flickering across the bay" on "one of those perfect evenings only the rich can afford," and Fitzgerald closes his eyes, "imagining what it would be like if he were actually here."


Several other character poems convey the feelings of a character who is representative of many or of a commonly experienced emotion. In "A Nazi in Retirement," a former Nazi lives "a quiet life" of restlessness in which he walks around a plaza at night "where the bougainvilleas and jacarandas bloom," a place where "the others come." "Tornado" captures the feelings of a wronged old man, for whose life "[has come to] a point where it all twists together, when it tangles and swirls and picks up speed and lifts into the air, a funnel, a frenzy of anger and disgust and revenge." "The American Dream" tells a story of immigration and a Vietnamese couple who has "[replaced their] three bodhisattvas…with crucifixes," who "[a]wake from this dream and find Americans in their bed." "May I Interest You" details the fetish of one woman who revels in evening sales calls, "caressing the telephone in her hands, running it over her breasts…the muffled voice on the other end trying desperately to close the deal." The revelation of the dark, intimate thoughts, desires and wishes of these characters bring the reader into the realm of storytelling while maintaining the poetic language and imagery of prose poetry.


Several of the poems in High Water Mark focus around the theme of religion. "A Saint for You," "Teaching a Child the Art of Confession," and "Martyr" touch upon feelings of devotion and struggle when it comes to faith. Allusions to the story of Noah and water can be found in "The Blue Period," "The Rain," and "Lifesaving," all of which foreshadow the title poem "High Water Mark," which deals with water as a metaphor for rising hardship and faith. These poems reach beyond Biblical interpretation and imagery to the human themes of memory, mortality, and what it means to leave the past behind and move forward.


The poems of David Shumate's High Water Mark utilize powerful imagery and poetic language to tell stories—stories of people, important and anonymous, devout and flawed, regretful and hopeful, shedding light on their deepest hopes and dreams.


About the Author

Cochran.jpgKara Cochran is in her first year of the MFA program at Rosemont College. In 2011, she received her BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University in Ohio. After graduation, she worked for a nonprofit organization and attended law school for a year before coming to her senses and applying to Rosemont. At Rosemont, she is the poetry editor for the Rathalla Review and writes poetry, flash fiction and novel-length work. Kara's work tends to be influenced by her upbringing in a Foreign Service family, and although she spent much of her childhood overseas and in various parts of the US, she has lived in Philadelphia for two years and is proud to call it home. In her free time, she likes to read, run, drink wine, go to the movies with her husband and hang out with her orange cat, Clementine.

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