I still remember being in awe as I first learned about the RMS Titanic in grade school. I pored over books with clear pages I could peel away to reveal the layers of the giant ship, I unsuccessfully tried to imagine the wonder the public felt at the size of the ship with its pool and gym and cargo and grand staircase, and I repeatedly played through the 1996 PC game, Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, that takes place onboard. Despite all of this, there was still always an incomprehensible aspect to it—the ship, accident, and amount of lives lost. With years between its existence and my own and with games and movies made about the tragic event, there was something “unreal” about the Titanic. That’s where Anna M. Evans comes in.
In her forthcoming poetry collection, Dark Waters: Surviving the Titanic, Evans invites us to board the ship with her. In a series of form poems—sonnets, villanelles, a ghazal, a paradelle—Evans shines the light of humanity upon the passengers of the Titanic. She imagines the lives and voices of the people involved, from the crew to the passengers, illustrating their last moments and their inner thoughts. In “Under Class,” a lower-class woman cries for her husband, cries for help, “Black ice in [her] veins” and her “mouth full of brine.”
In the three-part “Three Captains’ Tales,” captains from the SS Californian, the RMS Carpathia, and the RMS Titanic share their reactions to the wreck, each placing amounts of blame on themselves for not doing the right thing or not doing enough, and it’s chilling to imagine the regret and the feelings of responsibility over something so catastrophic.
Even the four-legged or feathered passengers are unforgotten. The poem “Animals of the Titanic” is a list poem, one of the few that strays from form. It is heartbreaking imaging these animals fending for themselves upon a sinking ship—a Great Dane, her body discovered with her master’s; Jenny, the ship’s mouser, and her kittens; one hundred English Foxhounds; “a fox terrier, last seen swimming.” But the poem becomes even more heartbreaking as it takes a turn from the list of animals:
Unconscionable, the fifty-six children left out of the lifeboats
Vacancies on the lifeboats, forty percent
Wealthy survivors, two hundred plus three dogs
And XYZ, and XYZ, and XYZ
There were plenty of lower-class humans who were left to die among the animals, treated no better than the dogs, cats, and chickens onboard.
We’re reminded of the ship’s humans again and again, though, as Evans tacks quotes from survivors or bits of news articles as epigraphs to her poems. The survivors’ own voices are there for us to read and reflect on.
Evans makes the history more concrete and more “real” by bringing in a link to the present and personal: her mother’s death. The second section of the book ties the two worlds together, my favorite of the three sections. (The last section is a crown of sonnets that continues to weave the story of the Titanic with that of Evans’s mother’s death.)
“Entering the Ice Field” begins the second section, making us privy to the conflict immediately: “Each year, on my father’s birthday, I called home / and my mother answered. Then, one year, she didn’t.” Something is wrong with her mother’s health. One might wonder how Evans can tie such an intimate scenario to the Titanic, but they don’t have to wonder long. The illness is referred to as some looming, unavoidable mass, and the poem ends:
That day, I continued, on high alert,
knowing something was wrong, and still we forged
full speed ahead as though the seas were clear
when all along the ice was waiting for us.
Evans shows just how hard and unexpected it is to suddenly face tragic news about loved ones. It can be just as disruptive as colliding into an iceberg in the middle of frozen waters—it can feel like you’re about to drown.
In this section, Evans shows how the Titanic has played a role in her life, first in “On Watching James Cameron’s Titanic While Pregnant with my Second Child” and again in “On Visiting the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas with my Teenage Daughters.” The book’s second section ends with “Titanic Month,” which takes place in April. Evans lists off events that happen in the month the ship sank: her parents’ 51-year wedding anniversary, crying at the hospital, feeling terrified there, being lied to by doctors. This all takes place in April, culminating with the final, blunt proclamation: “My mother died in April.”
An experience that seamlessly combines the factual with the personal, Under Dark Waters connects readers to the past while still anchoring us to the present through the personal, familial revelations from Evans. As readers page through the poems, we may be diving into dark waters, but Evans shines a light ahead of us, carefully leading us through the wreckage.