Camellia-Berry Grass’s Hall of Waters
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes
About six months ago, right before everything really shut down, my kid found my copy of Camellia-Berry Grass’s Hall of Waters, which I had just had Grass sign. He became fixated on it. He liked the cover, liked the author photo in the back, but most of all liked saying Berry Grass’s name. “Berry Grass,” he’d say, “Blueberry Grass, Blue Grass, Berry Trees, Berry Leaves!”
My kid is right to push and pull at Camellia-Berry Grass’s name like this. Grass loves puns, which one can see on their Twitter, but they also like taking one thing and pushing and pulling it, twisting it, lighting it up from unexpected angles. Hall of Waters does just this. It’s a book of essays, but just from its heft, you might guess poetry. I do not say this to say, “Oh, they’re essays but really they’re poetry.” What I mean is: Grass takes a form and transforms it. Many of the essays in their book are only one page, but those pages demand you sit with each sentence, one at a time.
Take, for example, the book’s opening essay, “Accountability,” which begins, “Let’s get to the point, like water does, rushing to fill all the spaces: this is about liquidity.” The essay takes up half of one page, but each line—dare I say—holds its own water. They ask us to consider spaces empty and filled, places occupied and not.
The essays are looking at Grass’s hometown, Excelsior Springs, how the town loved to erase Indigenous people and Black people from its history, how Grass’s personal history was written there, and how the water in the springs was the town’s greatest selling point and greatest lie. The essays are unflinching in how they are both critical and empathetic to the town and the townspeople, both pointing out the cracks in each story the town tells while also explaining how the cracks got there.
The book’s essays continue to think about space, not just within words, but with how they themselves take up space. Look at “The World Reduced to One Truth, Science, Such as It Is,” a letter to Donald Judd, an artist from Excelsior Springs that, as Grass writes in an earlier essay, “nobody really speaks of” in Excelsior. “Maybe it’s because you got out,” Grass wonders to Judd. In “The World,” the essay starts like a letter, directly addressing Judd, who died in 1994. But the main body of the essay reads like a poetic litany, each sentence a new line, defining “good art.” By the end, Grass pivots back to Judd, asking a series of questions about the way he made his art. Judd’s art reflects onto Grass, and the water of their words reflects back.
In “True or False,” Grass arranges quotes about the springwater across the page like their own tiny stanzas. They don’t provide any more analysis at this point. Instead, each quote hangs like a water droplet at the end of a branch, and the reader must decide if it will continue to cling or fall.
But best of all, one of my favorite things in this book, the thing I always mention to people, is Grass’s “hermit crab essays,” a term coined by Brenda Miller that describes essays that use borrowed, non-literary forms. These essays use a literal form: the Architectural/History Inventory Form from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources State Historic Preservation Office. Grass fills these forms out for their own childhood home, for example. Boxes are checked, and answers written briefly in the small space the box allows (“31. Chimney placement: Offset left”), but Grass also answers the questions in the dream state an essay allows (“11a. Historic use (if known): Horror and refuge. It was wet with booze breath & then verdant with rootgrowth. Less desperate than it was. Decorated.”) These hermit crab essays are thrilling: they let Grass press the mundane right up against trauma and love. They move the reader procedurally through a process of grief in the way that many of us must move through grief, at least initially—by having to fill out paperwork. And then, in the “cont.” sections of some questions, the essay floods the page, filling in the gaps the best that Grass can.
Hall of Waters is both a book I could never write and the book I wish I could have written. It proves that one might not require much physical space to intensely investigate a place and a history. Each small essay—each sentence—creates a swell inside you; until at some point, you burst.
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes was born in Harrisburg, PA and has a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA from George Mason University. Her book, Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, is out from Mason Jar Press. She has appeared in Always Crashing, The Rumpus, Cartridge Lit, Crab Fat Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is the blog editor of The Rupture. She is one of two buds on The Smug Buds podcast.