Learn more about this historical persona poem project, read reviews and sample poems.

University of Alabama Press, 2016; $19.99. 

The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller; University of Alabama Press, 2016
The Myth of Water is a cycle of thirty-four poems by award-winning Alabama poet and writer Jeanie Thompson in the voice of world-renowned Alabamian Helen Keller. In their sweep, the poems trace Keller’s metamorphosis from a native of a bucolic Alabama town to her emergence as a beloved, international figure who championed the rights of the deaf-blind worldwide.

Thompson’s artfully concatenated vignettes form a mosaic that maps the insightful mind behind the elegant and enigmatic persona Keller projected. Thompson takes readers on the journey of Keller’s life, from some of the thirty-seven countries she visited, including the British Isles, Europe, and Japan to the wellsprings of her emotional awakening and insight. The poems are paired with fascinating biographical anecdotes from Keller’s life and samplings from her writing, which infuse the work with richly-rewarding biographical detail.

The poems in The Myth of Water reveal the discerning subtlety, resiliency, and complexity of the person Thompson perceives Helen Keller to have been. Through a combination of natural intuition, manual signs, Braille alphabets, and lip reading, Keller came to grasp the revolving tapestry of the seasons and the infinite colors of human relationships.

Not a biography or a fictional retelling, The Myth of Water attempts to unlock what moved Keller to her life of service and self-examination. This is a deeply personal story of coming through—not overcoming—a double disability to a fully realized life in which a woman gives her heart to the world.

Reviews of The Myth of Water
"This is a moving and wholly satisfying collection of poetry. This collection is satisfying as a work of poetry, a work of biography, and a work of spiritual contemplation." 
--Maurice Manning, author of One Man's Dark and The Gone and the Going Award

 “Jeanie Thompson, through an act of sympathetic imagination, enters the Helen Keller story, relives it from the inside, and presents it here toreaders, fresh, reimagined and, yes, a miracle. If we thought there was nothing new to be said or learned about Helen Keller, Jeanie Thompsons new book shows us how wrong we would be to think that. The Myth of Water is a revelation — Richard Tillinghast, author of Wayfaring  Stranger and The Stonecutter’s Hand.”
 “Jeanie Thompson’s highly tactile The Myth of Water is woven like burlap cloth with a warp of prose narrative and a woof of poetry that miraculously make Helen Keller’s emotional life and intellectual process palpable for readers. Thompson’s poetic technique depends on metaphor—on what is like what—on kinship and the surprise of recognition. This approach is the reverse of ‘normal’ poetry-making and ‘normal’ learning, when we hear and see directly what is, and then it takes flight in metaphor and abstraction. Through Thompson’s inspired and inspiring poetry, we experience Helen Keller’s world from the inside to the contiguous world. These poems, of world significance, will break your heart, then mend it and return it to you enlarged. The brilliance of these poems makes me weep with joy.”— Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star-Gazer;Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette; and The Fountain of St. James Court: or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

 “While it is hard to find a contemporary poet able to conjure any human figure, much less one so sealed in stone as Helen Keller, in Thompson’s The Myth of Water Helen lives. She is present. Had I not read these simplepoems I would not have believed they could have been written.”— Louie Skipper, author of The Work Ethic of the Common Fly  andIt Was the Orange Persimmon of the Sun

“In The Myth of Water  Jeanie Thompson, through Helen Keller’s persona,moves us beyond the five sensory dimensions we’ve come to privilege.Here are the sixth, seventh, and eighth senses, the unseen. Theseare the ones connecting us with the larger unseen and unheard universe.Why watch and hear water when you can be water: ‘I was alone,tumbling/ in the deep element of myself.’ Thompson’s world is indeed deep and at times unnerving. Although we know how this story ends, the thoughtful syntax and unexpected images anchors us in an immediatenow experience. This is not historical poetry, this is a commentary on the myth of limitation.”—Derrick Harriell, author of Ropes and Stripper in Wonderland

“In The Myth of Water, Jeanie Thompson investigates the life of HelenKeller through an aesthetic imagination drawing on memory, culture and the historical to give us this seminal text. These poems are meticulous, lyrical, edifying. Midway through this collection the reader will begin to see the world through Keller’s eyes, not the darkness but the everlasting light.”—Randall Horton, author of Hook: A Memoir and Pitch Dark Anarchy


Memory of Ivy Green
Tuscumbia, Alabama
The first time I entered a wave
               my feet swept up under me
                              by a force stronger than wind
or Mother’s arms –
               nothing held me –
               The salt water touched me
                              like an earlier time, featureless air,
a bland surging engulfed me,
               just a babe --- who could know
                              anything of loneliness or death?
I was alone, tumbling
               in the deep element of myself.

When my little feet found no bottom,                                                                  
               no sand scratched my toes –
                               I was
cut lose --- returned to an elemental pulse ---
               with no thought of exit,
                              or birth.

                              * * * * * *

Flickering leaves
               played across the bathroom floor –
                              I toddled forward, arms outstretched –
Then this –
               the receding sound of Mother’s  

breath at the phantom’s ear –
These she cannot claim,
               they are not hers,
                              language has not taken her --
little soul cast off into the deep
               ocean of herself,
                              no mooring, no anchor.

First Entry, After Midnight
November 4, 1936

Aboard the SS Deutschland, en route for England

What I haven’t written I will now: the sorrow cannot be
shaped into a metaphor as I try cheating sharp grief:
the deepest sorrow knows no time –
It seems an eternal night.  The truth is  -- words slip
under my fingers like the typewriter on this listing ship.
But a sentence can link me to her, a rope of breath I smelled
in a dream, her perfume hovering over me. Standing tall,
my face forward, I please the photographer as our journey starts.
Most of the time I appear to myself to be a somnambulist,
impelled only by an intense Faith.  Faith, I test you now,
like all grief does. It is sweet because it helps me
to cross halfway with Teacher into her new life,
… terrible because it drives me to think of others’ sorrow
before my own, to hold up the torch of hope for the blind

when tears blot out all the stars for me.
To perform one task after another when the joy of work is fled….
I write a page, and stop. Words crumble into chaotic
               sticks.  That place before a word taught me to know her.

With excerpts from Helen Keller’s Journal in italics and images from observations in
the first week, this entry is imagined.

One word

My fingers across your face moments
               after the temperature in your palm
dropped below the life line -- knew you were gone.           
               This is not Teacher! I cried to anyone who could hear.                                     
In our attic study, I held that touch
               of soul-empty flesh.  In bright sun
by the window where you had read to me,
               I wanted to speak you back to warmth,
soft contour of the soul’s shadow.

Alone then, I knew the opiate fog returning,
               a slow movement through water
when light first receded, my ears closed over stone.
               You had opened all with one word: first doll,
 then water claimed me 
                                                            and I was yours.

At Anne Sullivan Macy’s deathbed Helen considers the gift of language,
and so much more, that Teacher gave her. The line ‘This is not Teacher!’
is documented in her biographies.

Helen’s Meditation in the Marble Quarry, Carrara, Italy
Spring 1950

After the shaking bus climbed and climbed
to Carrara, we boarded a wagon for the trip
inside the mountain’s deeper dark
cool air. Others around me shuddered,
almost afraid.  In the stone vault, the ceiling
soared above us like a cathedral.
I knew how a crevice reveals
               cool stone as a shadow changes
from sunlight to shade.
               This is elemental. Any child can know it.

The master came here to quarry stone
for a pope’s tomb, searched months
for the purest white stone without a vein.
How he must have raged!
What I felt was peace, surrounded by rock
               he would tear until it became human,
coaxing from it life.  I was matter,

encased in a stone’s cell, waiting
for the precise chisel of her fingers                                         
in my palm.  This is the way music comes to me,                 
               pulsation of air, notes bombarding,                         
a life force demanding ecstasy    
or terror, as private as the fluttering
of bird wings,    
                              or a lover’s breath
suddenly warm at my ear.

This monologue imagines Helen’s tour of a marble quarry at Cararra from which Michelangelo famously selected stone for his masterworks. She toured the masterpieces in Florence with her friend the sculptor, Joe Davidson.

The Myth of W-a-t-e-r                                                              

It was not a single word and there was no utterance.
You may have your play, your frozen moment in time
if these please you. But understand, Teacher lead me
to the well house to distinguish between water and what
holds it for drinking. I held the cup under the pump and she
wrenched the handle.  I could smell her sweat, though
I didn’t know its name – only that it mixed with the garden
and told me she was near. The liquid hit my fingers
where I gripped the cup’s handle – in my other upturned palm
she spelled the letters over and over, like fire.
There was a moment when everything came,
that my mind accepted thought like a body                                         
crossing a threshold through the opened door.
It was illumination and joy, then more words until Teacher,
Helen, world, go. Go into your life!  

Epilogue: In Terra Cotta 
Present day        
               “Bust of Helen Keller One of Three Artifacts Saved in 9/11 Fire” – news headline

Can you see my likeness now?
Touch the singed face,
think how the slow anneal
of re-fired clay is like the return
of those souls to the One
who made them. 
You have the world to consider.

In 1937, a Japanese artist presented Helen with a terracotta bust of herself when she visited Japan for the first time. Sixty-four years later, in the 9/11 attack, her likeness was one of three surviving artifacts at Helen Keller International, which sustained major damage in the fire.

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