A Review of Michael Waters’ Sinnerman

As a poet, I know I’ve encountered something terrific in a fellow poet’s work when I am stirred by awe and envy. It’s a complex, potent response in which my inconsolable wish to write something half as good is tempered by wonder. In the case of “Brooklyn Walk-Up,” the lead poem in Michael Waters’ newest collection, Sinnerman, I also felt a great delight, for there is proof that one who has written fourteen well-regarded books of poetry across nearly fifty years is still capable of producing work that ranks among his best.

Like many Waters poems, “Brooklyn Walk-Up” is a tense, humane crystallization of memory and grief, where longing intersects loss in surprising yet perfectly logical ways. In brief, the poem recounts a time when the speaker’s mother inadvertently locked herself out of her apartment while her infant son—in this case, the speaker himself—lies unattended like a “swollen, / Immobile, doll-shaped pile” inside. Once she breaks into her own home to save him, a moment of relief is followed by more panic, as she wheels her sleeping child “madly…like a bobbing cork” to meet the husband who will never know about the incident. Ironically, in the poem’s astonishing conclusion,

Years later she took such pleasure

In repeating the story, that boy

Swathed like an Andean child

Sacrificed on the mountain peak,

Mummified by the dry glacial winds,

Never to name his executioner,

That boy her favorite version of me.


Cover of the book SinnermanIn this impeccably lineated, seven-line sentence, Waters suggests that the boy who was saved and became the poet writing this poem would pale when compared to the almost mythic ideal his mother envisioned from her memory, for the helpless infant locked inside the apartment appears to have stirred in her a pitch of filial love she never again would feel with such intensity. Is this because of some parent-child estrangement that occurs beyond the scope of the poem? Or because the maternal ferocity she conjured to combat her son’s mortality eclipsed what any mother could express in other, less devastating circumstances? Thankfully, Waters doesn’t answer this question. Instead, we leave “Brooklyn Walk-Up” shivering and humbled in the knowledge that the best poetry lies somewhere between ruin and redemption.

Although the undisputed highpoint of Sinnerman, “Brooklyn Walk-Up” is followed by a procession of affecting poems that, when strung together, constitute a modest autobiography, where life’s in-between moments are lifted from mundanity by astute and generous perceptions. Beginning in childhood as the son of a tillerman, there follows: stories of youth when—at drive-ins or in store aisles of “Q-tips, condoms & disposable razors”—he discovers sex and its consequences; years of camaraderie with now-deceased poet friends recalled in delicate elegies; poems of intimate address to his wife and children; the lovely evocation of flora and fauna found in locales around the globe; and, in the onset of advanced years, a patient, unsentimental eye about the body and its eventual closures. Like any life, there is a lot of material to draw from. Because Michael Waters is a patient craftsman, the poems neither overreach nor lapse into solipsism. One senses the fullness of life rather than being dragged through its squalors. Even in the collection’s most intense poems, a sound balance is struck between affirmation and disavowal. In “Hoarder,” among the “boxes of mother” and “rags of father,” the speaker is able to empty the traumas of childhood by accepting the redemptive power of his wife’s love:

With each of your kisses, I discard a memory:

One punched door, one thrown dish.

I drop a face-slap down the trash chute.

With you as my lover, I ammonia light switches,

Scrub radiators of my mother’s neurosis, polish

The knives of my father’s affections.


By purging his parents’ toxicity, Waters is able to be a more empathic father. In “My Son’s Penis,” he walks into a shared bathroom where, “slipping off his briefs,” his son regards him “without self-consciousness.” The sight of his son’s appendage (“its beauty—a tropical / Isle’s unsheathed stalk”) returns him to a moment in his own youth when, masturbating to Marianne Faithfull, he is caught by his father and made to feel shame. Waters, however, “mutters apology” and silently promises “next time” he will knock. Later, in the equally powerful “Shark River Bridge,” the same man who has chosen to live and love with more empathy and insight than his parents, vows to die on his own terms. “I will not gaze like my mother beyond the son / Who visits the memory care facility,” he says. Instead, he picks a spot “in the center of the bridge,” where he will “leap toward oblivion.”

Lest one think, however, that Waters rejects aging and its complications, several poems in Sinnerman observe and respect bodies ravaged by time, including two poems about a flea-ridden dog. Instead of dismissal or neglect, there is an abiding sympathy: “Dog years/human years: our bodies age /By any measure of loss…I recognize / My shrunken self within your rheumy eyes” (“Old Dog”). One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Self-Portrait with Banana,” extends this theme from a different vantage point. The narrator, a young student, is assigned a still life; he chooses a banana for its shape and color,” not initially realizing that the very nature of the fruit involves rapid change: “too quickly the banana / Turned, during the days of my drawing, / From green-going-to-yellow / To daffodil / To fulvous egg yolk / To speckled trout / To oil spill / As the black bottomknot crept upward.” Rather than replacing the fruit with another, fresher model, the student sketches every stage of its life, from its pre-ripeness to full flower to gradual rot, “Until forty black paper sheets / Windowed the wall of my house.” The young artist, so immersed in the fruit’s life cycle, eventually internalizes what he has so obsessively observed. Ultimately, each banana still life becomes “A mirror of failure, each / My veil, my shroud, / My darkling cloud / Each my final / Erasure.” This conclusion, as fatalistic as it seems, is undermined by the poem’s clarity and formal ingenuity: a single sentence is stretched across twenty-seven lines without a hint of contortion or strain. Michael Waters understands that each of us is living one sentence for however long we are allowed to inhabit a body. The very least we can do is honor that sentence with honesty and grace.


Tony Leuzzi


Tony Leuzzi, a poet, has published four books of poems, most recently Fog Notes (Tiger Bark Press, 2024). He writes reviews and conducts interviews with poets for a variety of publications and is a regular contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. He is also a visual artist.