In an interview with Jerrod Schwarz included at the end of the collection, Jen Silverman explains that she “wanted to contend with a multitude of possibilities” surrounding baths. “You can be immersed or submerged. You can be bathed in sensation, you can be deluged in light.” Water surrounds us in bathtubs and fills us as we drink; the language of Jen Silverman’s Bath (Driftwood Press, 2022) similarly surrounds and fills.
The purpose of water and other liquids shifts throughout Bath. Water may “quiver like a fugitive” as it flashes a reflection. Speakers are “treading water” or use “each hand cupped / on a different set of promises.” Water creates “ocean-memory / sharp as brine” and sparks “the fountain of youth.”
Nevertheless, “the fountain of youth” has “a limit” and is described as “a steam-choked pool.” In Bath, water is not only a regenerator or refresher; baths are threatening and ominous, even deadly. This subversion is seen most clearly in Silverman’s twisting of baptism, a holy and divine type of bath. In “Bath 6,” “they dropped you in the river. They said / Praise Jesus, Praise Him. You bobbed up / half-drowned… Somewhere in / the river mud, you lost your God.” Or, similarly, in “Bath 3,” “you baptize yourself in sorrow, again and again. / You baptize yourself with bourbon and brandy.” Here, baths are not spiritual experiences, but a destructive power that traps and chokes.
Most poems take place in a specified location, like “Boston,” “Louisville,” or “Cairo.” These locations help differentiate poems that investigate similar themes and often include nameless characters. Silverman explains that “there’s a lot of truth to be found in the details—what a place looks and smells like, the quality of its light—but also the specificity of… language.” The setting, like water itself, is fluid and changing. The reader can’t know where the speaker most belongs, where they are most at home, or where they were raised.
In “The Devil Dogs My Steps, but if it Weren’t Him, it Would Just be Someone Else,” the speaker of the poem is “living in Cincinnati.” She isn’t sure that Cincinnati is home—she even asks “if you can call this living.” But, in Cincinnati, the Devil “calls” and “lingers.” The Devil and the speaker walk and talk together, even as he oversteps and complicates. “He isn’t invited per se, / but also, / he isn’t not.” “The Devil says: / I like to come home because it reminds me / what a disaster we make / of what’s ours.” But where is home for the speaker of this poem, or the speakers of Bath? Does the speaker avoid home to avoid her created disasters, as the Devil suggests, or is home found in relationships, in all their chaos and their miracles? As “a beefy woman at the bar says: / I like to travel because it reminds me / how great it is to be home.”
From this perspective, the role of water seems to foster connection. For example, “when I shower, you sit on the floor, / only steam between us.” Water fills the space between people, and a father’s love for his newborn daughter in “Bath 8” “becomes a weather-system / of love.” A few weeks later “he has panic attacks / all the time.” Relationships, and the delight and terror they cause, are as necessary as drinking water. The speaker explains that they “can’t stop thinking / that I’m going to die.” “Groceries, laundry, / bills of course, / but even the good stuff / …that stuff too: / gonna die.” Death anxiety follows the delight of interpersonal connection; this becomes a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with water, where the very thing we need to survive can kill so easily.
In “Bath 11,” the final poem of the collection, the speaker wonders “how strange it is: all the ways we are given to make / family.” For all the heartache of community, the speaker does not isolate herself. She spends New Year’s Eve with a kind of family, and her “ex’s wife tells us about giving birth / to their daughter.” On one hand, the scene seems full of fractured connection: the ex that married someone else, the foreshadowing of “B and I… breaking up,” and “my partner… that has yet to arrive.” And yet, when asked “to explain all this, / …what could I say but: Love.” In all of this, Silverman keeps bathing, even in the face of every potential loss.
Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University, working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com.