To call Lydia Havens’ first collection of poetry, Survive Like the Water, a tour de force is to acknowledge the driving vehicles behind its sea-soaked words: the body and how water, as both destroyer and caregiver, can drown us, revive us, and render us clean.
Survive Like the Water is divided into four distinct, yet interconnected themes of depression/bipolar disorder, anxiety, grief, and abuse, and how they have impacted Havens’ life and her relationship with herself and the world. Such themes are, by nature, heavy with pain and anguish, and Havens makes no attempt to hide such ugliness from the reader; in “one (in two parts)” she describes how others react to her while she is in the grips of mania. “they call me rapid. water in the winter. fish stuck under / the manic of me, gaping and slowly crimson.” Yet Havens also exposes the underside of such pain, allowing us to see the engorged belly of the beast known as mental illness. “I feel my lungs peel back like citrus,” one of the many similes that compare the ravaged body to the mundane and everyday.
But there is nothing mundane or ordinary in this collection. Objects that were once soft, like fruit trees or lithe flowers, become hard and beaten down by trauma. To be soft, then, is to open oneself up to bruising,, which coincides with the theme of lost childhood that precipitates throughout the book. This loss is most evident in the last section of the book, which deals directly with Havens’ experience with childhood sexual abuse, but its impact can be felt throughout. In “google searches from my mouth” Havens asks what may never be answered, such as “how to get toothpaste and blood out of a cotton shirt,” before ending with “how to get your baby teeth back.” It is sharp, it is painful, and it is necessary in understanding, or at least becoming aware, of how trauma can encompass the entirety of one’s life, both within and outside of the traumatic event itself.
Havens takes us on a journey through these four pillars of pain, allowing us to see the worst of it and the beginning of a healing that, although not necessarily hopeful, allows the start of something hopeful to exist. In “Mythology” she tells us of a girl who, “with self-inflicted vengeance / for a brain wrote the mountains / into existence.” The girl asserts that one day she will climb these mountains, even when “she was afraid to leave her house.” This story of a mountain girl who has yet to climb any mountains frames Havens’ own journey with mental illness; from her diagnosis, to the medications her doctors placed their faith in, and the everyday journey of becoming okay. The girl is not at the top of a mountain yet, and Havens is not yet okay, but the girl is finally beginning to climb, and Havens is realizing that she has “been writing mountains into existence / since I learned how much power I still have / over this brief body.”
The loss and reclamation of the body, from the pain, the past, and even one’s own mind, is what makes this collection so triumphant. It is lifting your head above the water even when the sea of your brain tries to drown you. It is knowing that you can transform yourself into the knives that were once pointed at you, and becoming armour instead. It is knowing how to survive like the water, thrive like the water, and become like the water. It is knowing that you can be both the destroyer and destroyed, the wreckage and the ruin, and becoming sea foam instead. Havens tells us in “Lessons my Blood Has Taught Me” that “there comes a time / when you have to refuse to give up" and rise against the current by forming your own rivers instead.
Everything comes back to the body and how it always survives against the odds. Against illness, grief, trauma, abuse, and pain. Against everything life attempts to snatch away from us as if we could ever truly forget why we keep on living. Perhaps this is most evident in “The Sky Talks With the Terrified Girl,” where the sky tells a scared and trembling girl how men have tried to cut her down with arrows and swords for centuries, and how she is still the only dependable thing in their lives. The sky does not know why she still exists, or what she even is anymore, but she knows that, despite it all, the girl will survive. She will become like the sky, “...all stomach. All heart. All body. All yours,” a childhood that may be lost, an innocence that may be vanquished, a pain that still throbs, but a heart that will still go on beating despite it all. We may never fully recover, or piece ourselves back together in the ways we thought we once were, but that is okay. It is okay to not be completely okay, because we are still here. Havens tells us about grief in “Another Poem About Mourning & Suicide Attempts (in 9 parts)," and how the death of her uncle still scars her and her family, but then she tell us how her own path has changed her, “as the chemicals I’m made of develop in the dark, revive me again in the strangest ways.” The grief does not disappear, nor has the pain or the anguish, but they have transformed into something like survival.
“So now, I dig graves, but I don’t fill them, / in rebellion.” The fear is still there, the tremoring is still there, but so is the refusal to succumb to such permanence. We will make that journey when our bodies are ready, when the tide recedes for good, when the grave can bear our lives’ burdens, or when flowers can learn to bloom in both blood and water.
Survive Like the Water is available through Rising Phoenix Press and can be purchased as a physical copy or e-book.