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Book Review

Rachel Custer, Editor-at-Large

What Lies Submerged:
Myth and Monster in All of This Was Once Under Water

Available now from Quarter Press.

In the only nod toward therapy – or the long-ago traumatic event that may have necessitated it, the speaker in All of This Was Once Under Water explains her obsessive search for a mythical monster in the Great Salt Lake:

It’s not a calling. You hunt
because something happened
at age eight. Something that should be
worked through –
slow–a session a week. (38)

In a poetry tradition that increasingly encourages the “trauma tell-all,” there is power in leaving something to the imagination. This power pulses through this book, which leaves the specific traumatic event alone in favor of myth, metaphor, and the impossible made manifest.

We are given a cast of characters upfront: a broken and re-assembled human “She,” her alien love, and a monstrous “salt creature who sings” (13). Setting: Utah, Earth, the Great Salt Lake. The narrative is bound up from the start with the history of the Mormon experience: the Utah desert is “a land without/persecution, a vast slate/ready to perfect” (14).

The monster has moved through the salted waters of the Great Salt Lake since before Brigham Young cast his eyes on the land and proclaimed it good. Still, its history parallels that of the church the speaker has left, as the reader is reminded throughout the book of (historical?) records of sightings by local workers.

Having “lasted centuries/with little light, in one place,” (25) the monster yearns to breathe the air, for light and color. He “stares for hours” at the pink of the flamingos: “sometimes it’s the most/color he’s seen//sometimes it’s the only/color he sees” (26). He longs to know “what fresh water tastes like,/how big a lung feels/when it inhales” (23).

In an act of faith, desperation, and need, She returns again and again to the lake to try to catch a glimpse of the monster. “Standing at the edge/of any body of water, She returns to him,/…The monster is everything/She thinks She needs: a story//told, a reason to believe not to believe” (40). The monster is, like the speaker’s lost faith (48), like these poems, both myth and truth, there but submerged in the remnants of history.

The speaker’s hinted-at trauma is left for the reader to discern, though the monster’s parallel history with the Mormon church suggests a potential connection. The murkiness of this seems intentional, as in the poem “The Monster Sees Calves and Feet Off the North Shore”:

If it wasn’t certain
exposure, if he wasn’t
so enormous, he would swim up
right off shore
to where She wades and touch
each toe lightly. Enough
to make her kick, enough
to give him cause. (91)

All of This Was Once Under Water is a book of quiet power and depth worth plumbing. Questions of faith, truth and how we work to (re)make it, and the ultimate search for meaning, are deftly handled through the use of metaphor. While the reader plunges with her into salt water, Natalie Padilla Young’s light touch makes heavy subjects pleasurable to read, and her adeptness with myth will have many wanting to believe.


About the writer:
Natalie Young is a founding editor for the poetry magazine Sugar House Review. By day, she works as an art director for an ad agency based out of Salt Lake City. These poems are part of a manuscript that mixes factual scenery and history with speculative fiction, in order to explore peculiarities in human nature, culture, and environment. Poems from this series have been published in Green Mountains ReviewThe Midwest QuarterlyRattleSouth Dakota ReviewDrunken BoatPilgrimageSpillway, and others. Natalie is left-handed, half Puerto Rican, and a fan of Carol Burnett and broccoli. Natalie Young is the Featured Writer at O:JA&L for November 2018. Young’s new book,  All of This Was Once Under Water, is a limited-edition, full-color hardcover book that contains six of Young’s poems first published by OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L). The book, illustrated beautifully by the German artist Maximiliane Spieß, is now in release from Quarter Press. Click on the title to follow the link.

About the reviewer:
Rachel Custer is the author of Flatback Sally Country (Terrapin Books) and The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She was a 2019 NEA fellow. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, One Art, and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. Rachel Custer is Editor-at-Large (Reviewer and Editorialist) at O:JA&L.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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