The Poetry Project

Elias Rodriques’s All the Water I’ve Seen is Running

Review by Levi Bentley

All the Water I’ve Seen is Running by Elias Rodriques (Norton, 2021) is quietly eloquent about the inchoate pull of attachment. It’s a complicated love letter to the south, to Jacksonville, Florida, in all its poverty, inequity, violence, and racism. It’s also a treatise on the idea of “home.” It captures with sensitivity the flavor—specific and unromantic—that crystalizes both the particular location of Jacksonville, and what it is to feel at home; to be intimate with both the slivers of enchantment and what is utterly unlovely.

The story begins with a memory of Daniel and Aubrey, the girl he loved in high school, fishing in the intertidal, then proceeds to develop in alternating chapters between memories of the past and Daniel’s present-day search for insight into Aubrey’s death. Daniel, the protagonist, is the son of a Jamaican mother who immigrated to the United States with Daniel when he was young, and returned to Jamaica later in life. In high school he was a distance runner deemed most likely to “get out” of Jacksonville by his team. His teammates prevent him from joining a physical altercation with a white boy to prevent him from ruining his promising future. Aubrey is white and a self-identified “Southern Cracker.” When he protests that she is not a redneck, or at least not like the others, she replies “What’s that supposed to mean?” Daniel remembers she was ”bad” in high school, a trait he perversely admired along with her physical strength and fishing skills. He struggles to reconcile learning of her adult criminal record with the person he remembers, who was “far from heartless.”

The second chapter opens with Daniel learning about Aubrey’s death. He is living in Brooklyn, working as a college instructor, in a relationship with Virgil, a boyfriend he is quietly slipping away from. His memories of Aubrey throw the comfortable holding pattern of his relationship into sharp relief, causing him to end the relationship abruptly. It seems at first like his reason for the breakup is that it does not compare to his memories of Aubrey, but later he says it is precisely the intimacy of the relationship which he is trying to escape. He says, “I have forgotten how hard it is to be around people who know me so well that I cannot hide.” Daniel often avoids telling his story even as he’s pulled towards it.

Daniel’s mother has returned to Jamaica in order to find “the other sides of stories that made her life what it was, what it is,” and Daniel’s return to Jacksonville is also just as much a search for the mysteries of his own life as it is about Aubrey. In fact, we learn very little about Aubrey’s adult life that is not included in Daniel’s initial internet searches at the beginning of the book. Even conjecture about her adult life based on these details is left largely alone.

When Daniel returns to Jacksonville, following the trails of his memories, he turns up relationships that are changed based on how he has changed. Being the Jamaican track star on an all white cross-country team looks different when he returns. Now unused to being the only Black person in a social space, newly sensitized to the racial slurs casually uttered in front of him, he marvels perhaps for the first time that he ever felt safe there.

Daniel is a young queer Black man who is in many ways both seeking and in flight from himself. He does not readily outwardly reflect or communicate his feelings to his partner, family, or friends. Yet he acts, often without questioning, in accordance with their pull. His attachments—unexplained and unexplainable to those around him or himself—are often unexpected and fearless. His non-verbal decisiveness and the strength of his affective attachments are key components of his character, revealed slowly as the story unfolds. As chapters alternate between intense reveries of high school, and Daniel’s search for meaning in the present day, he is progressively required to bring his relationship with Aubrey into language to those around him.

The electric force between Daniel and Aubrey becomes more mysterious the more it is examined, both in its apparent unraveling and in its undiminished and uncategorizable strength. It is the mystery at the heart of the novel, which remains unsolvable while becoming more real. The text leads readers to examine the unexpected emotional logic of recognition. At the heart of the story is the paradox of Daniel and Aubrey’s relationship, a black track star from the Caribbean and a white redneck girl, who regardless of their backgrounds are able to see each other. Daniel says of Aubrey, “No one had ever stood so still in my gaze nor had I done the same for anyone else.” They share each other’s worlds fully. He continues, “Believing love to be defined by mentioning every unmentionable, we spilled our secrets in jumbled words, sentences without periods.” The lyric intensity of Daniel’s memories often contrasts with dry observations of the present. The inner world of the novel is lush; the outer world is both minutely observed and briefly reported.

The strength of All the Water I’ve Seen is Running is that the connection between entwined people shaped by the same coast, the same waterways, and put into tension with one another by opposing cultural forces. The relationships are never formally reasoned out or explained, they simply exist. The novel slips between polemics to dwell on details—mundane, emblematic, and totally singular. Characters do not escape their circumstances, but are always sliding sideways, exceeding them. As an adult, Daniel identifies as a gay man, but after learning of Aubrey’s death, the love he felt for her in high school arises anew, undiminished by time, accepted without question or identity crisis.

All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running shows meaning running beneath language, escaping and overturning it, and how trying to pull some things into spoken language can do it violence, seem to diminish it. The written language of the novel is often lush and lyric, but just as often quiet, dry and matter-of-fact, describing events that show in their casual minuteness the emotional subtext running beneath them. Rodriques makes all of this feel effortless, almost hiding the power of the work until it grows within the reader like unexpected heartache. The shape of the plot is less a crescendo than a haunting.

All the Water I’ve Seen is Running alternates between intensely recalled memories and a present that tangles and blunts intention, but the narrative turns continually towards unexpected territory. It observes the facets of its characters with intense kindness, neither smoothing out edges and incapacities, nor reducing capacity for expression, desire and connection. The way people show care is often sideways, small, abrupt, surreptitious. Although Daniel’s friend Des does not greet him enthusiastically, they immediately slip into an easy and fluid mode of relation, trading private gestures and turns of phrase particular to their friendship. The past, however complicated, accidental, violent, and unglamorous is inextricable from the present. Race and identity are omnipresent, shaping and modulating every interaction, but do not inherently divide people.

Some relationships hold what others cannot. Each person is their own world. There is a delight in observing tiny gestures, mannerisms, ways of speaking, and the way these communications echo and carry, the way they signify within a relationship. Daniel’s friends Des and Egypt, with whom he drops into familiar code switching, also tease him about being gay. Still, although he has been gone for years, he does not question the strength or reality of their friendship.

It’s a new kind of coming of age story: not the story of sexual awakening and adolescent search for love in the traditional sense, but the story of a young adult who has established a desirable life with stability and romance but is nonetheless restlessly on the trail of intimacy and connection with the past. In this novel intimacy is a glue but also a cause of breakage.

Daniel’s search leads him beyond and away from markers of achievement, acceptability, upward mobility, and relative safety. All the Water I’ve Seen is Running is a book that shows us how each relationship to each other person is a totally new thing, unreproducible, unexplainable, and it is this that is the real content of a life. It shows us how memories and childhoods thread through the rest of our lives, each co-creation a combination of millions of tendencies, coincidences, and inconsistencies embedded in individual lives. The shifting of past and present lets meaning fall out of mundane moments. Daniel always appears to both know and not-know his way forward, to be fleeing and chasing the truth. Even while Daniel is returning to follow the thread of who he was in his love for Aubrey, he is still running from the admission of their connection. By refusing to describe it truthfully, he has protected it from others in a secret space beyond language. Eventually, when he does tell his friends the content of their attachment, the ghost is dispelled. Daniel finishes his long-distance run to the present. He is altered. His trajectory changed.

#267 – Winter 2022