The Lake Has No Saint
By Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press, 31 pp., $9.95
In Stacey Waite's fine new poetry collection The Lake Has No Saint, there are 26 poems, and 17 of them echo the book's title in having some form of "no" or "not" in their own titles or first couple of lines. The nos and nots are less apparent than Waite's formal decisions to begin each poem's title with the word "when," say, or to forgo capitalization. Still, these negatives assert their own gravitational pull -- one in which the narrator is almost perpetually failing to remember, unable to forget or incapable of finding something.
Yet it's part of the appeal of Waite's collection (her third) that this superficial negavity doesn't result in a book that's monolithically angry or sad, let alone renunciatory. Rather, the University of Pittsburgh instructor's work has a searching feel, wielding all those nos and nots as tools of self-definition and discovery.
Broadly, these short works move from poems about childhood and adolescent struggles with gender identity to verses about adult relationships. "when praying for gender" finds the narrator "crying in dresses" and "praying: please god, if you let me wake up and be a boy, I will never say another swear word again."
Likewise, there's a division between such straightforward storytelling and stream-of-consciousness works. The latter are mostly the relationship poems, hauntingly impressionistic verses in which the narrator is often depicted seeking refuge with a lover, as in "when bearing the burden of this sound": "we know we can not breathe out what others can hear. / we keep quiet in this small room / your body leaning into my jawbone."
Negations notwithstanding, Waite's writing is thoroughly assured, generating considerable emotion with everyday words and simple free-verse structures. Strong poems including "when loneliest in the mornings" lack even line breaks, and have a haiku-like simplicity: "I have always loved you this way despite our forgetting, despite some mornings how we leave one another quiet."
Nonetheless, one of the collection's most memorable works is "when leaving the house as a man," in which the narrator attends her first drag show in a suit and tie. When she returns home, her mother "covers her eyes as though i had been naked and not her child." Even in the moment's filial unease, the narrator can be felt to revel in, at last, a burst of teen-age assertiveness.