Review by Craig Colin Smith, Pirene's Fountain: A Journal of Poetry
“For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding: it is the deepest part of autobiography.” Even coming from a lesser authority than Robert Penn Warren, this statement certainly rings true and resonates among poets.
Body Rhymes, a collection of intensely personal poems by Donna Emerson, impressively illustrates what can be accomplished when Mr. Warren’s implicit warning is faced full on as a challenge and the poet’s hazardous attempt at self-understanding succeeds.
Of the twenty poems in Body Rhymes, all but two are written in first-person, the conventional invitation to the reader to identify with the narrator, to slip on the narrator’s skin and experience her world as she experiences it, to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell through her senses—to learn about and understand her the way she dares to learn and understand herself. Here in its entirety is the opening poem of the collection.
Emerson’s is a sensual and sensuous world. Sometimes as cool and subtle as a young girl’s gaze quietly drawn to the saddle that the boy ahead of her sits astride, the boy whose name means “man, earth.” Sometimes that sensual and sensuous world burns white hot with no patience for the restraint of subtleties as in these lines from “One Hundred Hudson Street:”
Yes, it is a world of passion and pleasure. But not surprisingly it is also a world of peril, where passion and pleasure are sometimes distorted, deformed, and destructive. In “The Orchard,” a twelve-year-old girl is cruelly shoved into that dangerous world by an old man whom she had once trusted, a man who had once reminded her of her grandfather:
In “Doris Lucile in January,” beauty is its own danger. In these lines, a daughter traces a pernicious inheritance back to her own mother’s childhood.
In Emerson’s poems, no pain and no loss pass without leaving lessons behind. Four poems in Body Rhymes usher the reader to the bedsides of seriously ill or dying patients where lessons in acceptance, defiance, and despair are equally taught. Arguably the most autographical poem in the collection is “She Lay Asleep Wearing Oxygen” in which Emerson tends to her own mother in her last hours. Emerson’s honesty is brave and admirable; she sees and loves the good—and the bad—in her mother.
Emerson’s poems are unflinching, earnest endeavors to understand her subjective self by delving into the most intimate, secret, and sometimes darkest episodes that have shaped and informed it.
“For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding . . .” And yet, it is interesting to note that Mr. Warren did not say “what is writing a poem;” he said simply “what is a poem.” Could not the reading of a poem also be a hazardous attempt at self-understanding?
Donna Emerson’s Body Rhymes proves that this complementary interpretation of Robert Penn Warren’s assertion is not only possible, but probable. Readers who approach these poems with the same candor with which they were written will undoubtedly come away with a deeper understanding of themselves.
When your eyes flicker across the last line of a particularly satisfying poem, one of two reactions is virtually guaranteed. Either you will instantly go back to the first line and begin rereading it, reveling in the parts that danced in your mind's eye, or you will sit quietly for a few moments, silently reflecting on the magic left in the poem's wake.
I've always been one to experience the former more so than the latter, and several of Donna Emerson's pieces in Body Rhymes had me journeying back to the beginning of the piece to again explore the flowing peaks and valleys of language she so deftly employed. The meticulous word choice is often as effective as it is stirring.
From the brutal melange of nostalgia and pain in The Orchard to the honesty and vitriol of The Princess Who Told the Truth, from the aching desire in Close to the Heart of Rose to the unabashed sentimentality of Heath and Audrey, Body Rhymes is unrelenting in its emotional demands on the reader. Your soul will be stirred, whether you wish it or not.
The centerpiece of the chapbook is She Lay Asleep Wearing Oxygen, a multi-sectional examination of a woman's last moments after a long illness. Taxing in its sincerity, it's one of the most personal and revealing works I've encountered in a long time, and such pellucidity contributes to its impact.
The entire book, in fact, feels like the rise and fall of a regular pulse, an EKG of emotional highs and lows, leading up to and through She Lay Asleep Wearing Oxygen and into the subtle resignation and optimism of Grace Notes. It's a fitting conclusion to an evocative project.