Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016)
Praise for Trouble the Water:
" 'Expect poison of the standing water,' Blake warned, highlighting the dangers of imaginative stagnation. I’m now tempted to believe that Blake himself has sent us Derrick Austin and his remarkable collection, Trouble the Water. At once gospel and troubadour song, these deeply spiritual and expansively erotic poems are lucid, unflinching, urgent. This is an extraordinary debut."
—Mary Szybist, winner of the National Book Award
"Skilled with the ability to harness detail and stringent images, Derrick Austin creates a lush and smoldering landscape in which the very soul is tested. Trouble the Water is a book of devotion, a metaphysical book that troubles God, the landscape of Florida, the always-fallible bodies of men, and even the body of art. Austin writes: ‘Lord in the pigment, the crushed, colored stones. / Lord in the carved marble chest. I turn away / from art.’ But you will not be able to turn away from this beautiful debut."
—C. Dale Young
"This is a daring first collection that paints a series of illuminated estrangements. In forms that range from free verse to psalms and sestinas, Austin troubles the figure of Christ, conjures the Florida landscape, and worries histories of art and Eros. He calls up the saints—Zora and Nina and Marvin among them—making poetry out of the enfleshment of queer desire: 'You look at me like a painting / you think you know all the names for,' one speaker declares. Another laments, 'Can’t you just suck me off? (I’m alive.).' When you pick up this book, be prepared to dissolve into its atmosphere of gorgeous potential: that strain before storm, the blur before fire. 'Listen, baby:' the speaker in 'Torch Song' warns, 'when I open my arms to the crowd and mouth / the night’s first note, I don’t sing; you singe.' "
—Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
"Glory is a strange word. It can mean both praise that one gives to God and others, or it can signify the height of one's own achievement 'He had reached his full glory as a writer.' The word glory is used liberally in Protestant bibles; in the Catholic bible the word is often replaced with 'brightness.' All of these senses are applicable in Derrick Austin's glorious debut collection. The book is suffused with brilliance, a light which shines both on God and man, in some of the most rapturously devotional poems ever penned. 'Expect a fire to the heart,' writes Austin. 'He will press His light into our bones and mouths, wear out our simple faces.' What makes these devotions even more moving is the way in which they are anchored inside a life at the edge of transformation, where tidewaters meet gulf and the ecological realities of hurricane parties or of men in hazmat suits cleaning the toxic oil spill along the coast. Add to this global uncertainty, the still all-too-common ways in which race ('I can't stand to/ look ahead/ at another dead black boy') and sexuality ('exposing all/ the simple gemlike gears of my erotic life') can imperil us. But these dangers do not triumph. Even in Austin's elegy for Derek Jarman, who died with aids in 1993, there is an abiding radiance. 'His soul tarries here.' Derrick Austin's poems move through centuries of veneration and devoutness in art, architecture, worship and yes, even drag culture, as a way of affirming the glory and grace of the human condition. Our state of suffering is made holy through faith in a God who, Himself, has suffered on Earth. Describing the effigy of the body of Christ, Austin reminds us that He, too, has 'been brought down before--ancient graffiti--/ and had "love" carved into Him once more.' Lest the reader think that this is going to be sweet Sunday school verse, I should say emphatically that this is nothing of the kind. The poems are formally elegant in every way, but they are broader and more inclusive of popular culture and of unabashed sex and sexuality. There is bravery at every turn, and at the same time, this is poetry that reaches back into human history and spirituality, refusing to compartmentalize the body and soul as separate considerations. This is poetry touched by our own image: alive, awake and glorious in every way we hope that art can be."
“The title of Austin’s collection, Trouble the Water, invokes the spiritual 'Wade in the Water,' a song of the Underground Railroad that references the biblical story of the parting of the sea, a miracle that delivered the Israelites from slavery. Such a poignant context invites the reader to approach the book through a particular lens, especially since the opening poems are 'Tidewater Psalm' and 'Devotions.' But the homoeroticism embedded in the religious imagery of these same poems makes it clear that Austin means to 'trouble the water' in expressions of 'passion' and 'desire,' and trouble the current era in which the body’s freedoms can be, simultaneously, prisons.”
"Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water is the book of poetry that moved me the most profoundly in 2016, and while much of that power derives from its effortless and unapologetic beauty, it moves me mainly by virtue of being sad. Sadness, too, is one of those things that remains meaningful even when its more elaborated or elevated forms eclipse that core: grief, mourning, despair. . . . Austin’s poems are bounded by conditions of extremity, but unfold, with delicacy and in repose, between those conditions."
—The Constant Critic
"Derrick Austin wields a variety of figurative devices, modes of address, and rhetorical stances. His strongest imagery does not startle, but confirms our sense of the rightness of things . . . Precise and focused, Austin’s language often seems ekphrastic, as though he had a picture in front of him as he writes. In a few of the poems, he clearly does, but it is his voice and vision, not his method, that are ekphrastic."
"Austin’s remarkable debut collection opens with a quote from John 5:4–6 . . . foreshadowing how water, religion/spirituality, and body focus become vehicles to explore being black, homosexual, male, and a human being in a troubling century. ‘San Souci’ epitomizes the sophistication of form and thought in Austin’s poetry by using an effect resembling Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors as the poem’s speaker reflects on paintings, how they reflect life, his body, his lover’s body, how he can see his lover as a painting or see the act of pleasuring another artfully reflected back to him. Whether encountering European catacombs or the Gulf Coast’s post-oil-spill devastation, all of Austin’s lyrical poems are poignant and empowered.”
“This collection is well-suited to readers prepared interrogate what they love and what they distrust. In Austin’s hands, the exquisite can be ominous while the grotesque can turn charming, and his poems wisely assert that the world is unforgiving and yet full of mercy—that one can question beauty and yet still be beholden to it.”
"Trouble the Water is an auspicious debut, a deep and resonant volume which nurses wonder in the face of sorrow and anger, wonder in the presence of loss. Here we follow a speaker who proclaims early on, 'my heart swims / in gladness at the changeable world.' I want to keep these words as a credo, recite them often. I want to receive the world this way every day.”
"Derrick Austin’s stunning debut, Trouble the Water, gives readers unique insight on what it means to be a queer, black man in today’s world. He navigates the complicated worlds of race, sexuality, and religion with such fearlessness that we as readers can’t turn away even if we wanted to. . . . Austin is an important voice in poetry. His book comes at a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the social injustices these communities face. Trouble the Water is not just the title of Austin’s book; it is a command. The only question now is whether or not we will listen.”
"Amidst the force of eventual inundation, Trouble the Water’s resplendent ekphrastic poems buoy joy through the human-made. Ancient architecture, queer film, and the intricate structures of cities become part of earth’s orders, subject to the same surging storms. Austin settles a maelstrom of imagery into meticulous forms reminiscent of James Merrill’s masterful work, and uses sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and rhymed couplets as containers for overwhelming emotion. Austin’s purposeful use of prescribed form is, as Merrill wrote, 'like skating upon a sheet of ice that had formed above a black torrent; we may skate with an assurance of safety, but the ice does not make the water less terrible.' By filling out spaces of formal confinement, Austin amplifies the worldly power of thought. As he writes in 'Byzantine Gold,' 'The mind/ itself/ drips rough honey and gilds the world.' "
“In the spirit of our richest religious traditions, these poems marry the humor and grief of being alive–that intersection where the human spirit begins to lift toward the transcendent. From 'Dead Gull': 'Worms tunnel through your body: / blood, water, salt, flesh, / distilled into base elements— / everything you are is useful to everything else— / a transformation / I envy.' Trouble the Water is unsettling, sensual, musical, enthralling: it is the rare book that is both deeply necessary and a sincere joy to read.“
—Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion
"There is another kind of energy coursing through these poems besides the erotic, though, and that is the energy of aggrieved and grieved social witness. In powerfully fiery poems like 'Magnolia' and 'Sweet Boys' as well as more calm and clipped but no less morally centered poems like 'Effigy Without a Body,' the poet examines the wounds that racism and homophobia have inflicted on human society since time immemorial: 'I can’t stand to/look ahead / at another dead / black boy,' he laments. There are also pieces where poetry of place tips into the political, as in a section of ecologically aware poems about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill."
“Part pastoral, part ekphrasis, part witness, part eco-poetics, part queer pop culture—it is too easy to say that Austin’s poems live inside the elastic tension between high and low art, between religious devotion and queer desire; it is too easy to say that Austin contains multitudes. At times, Trouble the Water reads like four definitive chapbook-length projects, but it is his insistence throughout the book on art’s ability to reveal rather than salve, his insistence on the corporal holiness of the body, even (especially) a queer body, in a socially puritanical world, that allows these varied poems to converse with each other and ultimately complicate each other. Trouble the Water is a rich and rewarding collection.“
“There’s a cross section in Austin’s work that’s completely singular—where John the Baptist meets RuPaul, say—and the effect manifests in lines that can haunt you for the rest of your damn life: 'Where are you? I need a solitary room / with you in it. Wall me in. Lie down on me.' The violence, when it appears, is stunning—as in, it stuns. Its presence is sudden, shocking, and defiant among so much gentleness and play on behalf of the speaker. The speaker is, in a very visible way, troubled by it; and he aims to return its shock back outwards, towards its source, to trouble the water that has been troubled, the water that is both singular and divided.“
"The scripture epigraph of John 5:4-6 frames your text perfectly—those words in red I know so well: ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’ Jesus said this to a man seeking healing at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, but I felt these words directed to me as well. It is a difficult choice. Can we be whole without the appendage of religion? Are our untouched selves enough?
Your last poem in the collection, ‘Vespers,’ was my favorite one to capture this same idea. This is our ongoing prayer, a question: 'Lord in the camellia, drifting in and out of sight, / like those blushing, perfumed heads will you welcome me?’
We can only ask. And keep asking.
As poetry transforms dim feelings into tangible images and sensations, I got to know myself with more certainty after reading your collection. Thank you for that."