Book Reviews

Beside the Well

Beside the Well

By Donna L. Emerson
Cherry Grove Press, 2019
Review by Rebecca Foust, Marin Poet Laureate and author of Paradise Drive, winner of the Press 53 Prize for Poetry

"How to hold this majesty and manage fear at the same time?"

the speaker asks in “Stallion on the Road,” but in Beside the Well the question is writ large and applies to life across the board. The poems take us on a journey to the past, to the speaker’s childhood farm in western New York and then to her current home in California, paying homage to people and places loved and lost along the way and carrying those memories forward to infuse the present with poignance and meaning.

 Everything is perceived with a laser focus, minutely observed and appreciated, even when the detail is lack of sensory perception as “How can no taste, taste this good?” about water drawn from a well. Diction is plainspoken, inviting readers in to share the speaker’s many-valanced experiences of love, family, travel, horses, and interactions with broader culture, especially music. 

We have a sense of generations stretching backwards and ahead, especially in the exquisite poems about daughters like “Juliet at Nine and One-half” and “Shining Brown Hair.” One way to hold majesty and manage fear is with the balance and equanimity found in these poems, so that even when love disappoints, we are still moved by a memory of its most sparkling moments—my favorite is when the speaker’s lover takes her flying in his Cessna and executes a series of dazzling dives through loops of an unspooling roll of toilet paper he’s tossed out the window.

Beside the Well records moments of everyday intimacy shared with family, friends, lovers, and even a few strangers encountered in the speaker’s home visits as a social welfare worker, and together they weave a sense that home is less a specific place then any time “when we are all together.”

The Place of Our Meeting

The Place of Our Meeting

By Donna L. Emerson
Finishing Line Press, 2018
Review by Eniko Vaghy
Paterson Literary Review, Issue 47, Spring, 2019, pp 258-259

Very rarely—if ever—does a perfect bound collection of poems refuse to be called a book. The act of holding the physical object, of flipping through its pages would seem to drive home its primacy—however, when I was given the chance to review Donna Emerson’s The Place of Our Meeting, I could not define her series of poems in this way, for they didn’t just “read” for me—they “drew.” As I delved deeper into the marvelous world of Emerson’s poetry, I found myself approaching her collection as if it were a compact gallery and each of its poems an individual painting secured before me on the wall. 

In The Place of Our Meeting, Emerson’s poetic gallery is laden with intimate portraits of affection, loss, fear, and strength as well as expansive landscapes that are animated in a profound tradition I have decided to call the “living ekphrastic.” Here, Emerson appoints natural environments as inspirational works of art and sets them blooming with her vibrant brand of imagery, verse, and soul. In the poem “Radiance,” Emerson’s speaker stills an encounter with a cow on a hill and analyzes the scene until it evolves from a commonplace occurrence, to a profound sight that carries a larger message of endurance. Emerson’s speaker elevates the cow to the status of a noble heroine, describing the animal’s stance as, “Sturdy, surveying all below, / as if she’d just / been crowned” (14). Towards the end of the poem, the cow is compared to the windblown yet steadfast subject of Claude Monet’s Woman in a Parasol, Facing Left as the cow’s back, like Monet’s model, is “…wide and slightly slung, / her feet planted as if to stay, / in spite of heat, drought, wind.” (14). Though Emerson’s manner of examining and glorifying nature could be interpreted as a response to the phrase “Life imitates art,” Emerson reconceptualizes this message to reveal that, in reality, there is no imitation, but simply a state of being—life is art. 

This quality of illustrating one’s natural surroundings reconfigures the notion of artistic space as well as what constitutes a work of “art” and how it should be experienced. For Emerson, works of art not only demand one’s viewership but one’s immersion. In several poems in The Place of Our Meeting, Emerson’s speaker exhibits a profound willingness to plunge into every work of art she encounters and descend within it until the core of its meaning is reached. Though Emerson’s speaker wades through the creative efforts of illustrious individuals such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Emerson’s speaker’s unquestioning acceptance and admiration of art is not primarily confined to that of the famous. In fact, in one of my favorite poems of the collection titled “First Day of Kindergarten and Eleven Years Later,” Emerson’s speaker decides to immerse herself in a painting created by her young daughter. 

Though children’s artwork is often fleetingly cherished—perhaps treated to a limited viewing on the refrigerator—before being lost in a box or discretely discarded, Emerson’s speaker demonstrates the importance of returning to the work of one’s child. There is something fully human about this experience—for one, the canvas is afforded a “torso” that sloshes with “blustery waves,” but there is something even more interpersonal about the poem. Like two individuals who meet every day, Emerson’s speaker and the painting engage in a symbiotic relationship where the painting gradually reveals another precious facet of itself and leaves Emerson’s speaker with a new impression of its identity. “At times I see the deep ocean…” the speaker claims, “…the height / of wave-splash against the boat. / At times I see how red the sturdy ship. // At times I feel the wing flap / of the five large water birds above. / Of late I see how free the birds, / how unfinished the air in which they fly (20). 

After eleven years of looking at her daughter’s painting, Emerson’s speaker is no closer to coming to a resolution of its meaning than when her daughter first completed it. Whereas this could be interpreted as a failure on the speaker’s part to completely “know” the painting Emerson represents this moment as an example of the benefits of growing with a work of art. Though the speaker is familiar with the painting, she is still discovering it—as a result, the painting continues to live for and with her. 

What Emerson achieves in “First Day of Kindergarten and Eleven Years Later,”—and throughout most of The Place of Our Meeting, for that matter—is a subtle suggestion of how all works of art should be approached; that is, not rigidly with stubbornly held biases or expectations, but with all the graciousness of an outstretched hand awaiting the contact of another’s touch, which may prove cold or stickily warm but nevertheless communicative, responsive. The Place of Our Meeting persuades its readers to engage with every type of art—the kind preserved on canvas, through words, and in the world—and to form devoted relationships with it. Instead of expecting this artful universe to serve us, Emerson suggests we should stand before it eagerly; ready to start a conversation that, once begun, may shift and even pause but never end. 

The Place of Our Meeting

The Place of Our Meeting

By Donna L. Emerson 
Finishing Line Press, $19.99
Review by Ron Thomas

In The Place of Our Meeting, Donna Emerson's poems are imbued with a brave, mature, voice. A voice that is soothing yet cuts to the heart of a small deer's foot caught in barbed wire, to her love of the smile and glistening face of a grave digger she has photographed: "So I put him in all my shows, shamelessly, but never sell him./ He's the one everyone wants and can't have." 

She writes exquisite poetry that brings to life old loves, galloping horses, poverty, protests, servitude, and the red-packed clay of Alabama. She feeds us Moon Pie in the deep south, quenches our thirst with RC Cola. 

Donna captures nature and art with the same intimate eye, the same trained eye she must have used as a social worker. Her book overflows with piercing glimpses of an inquiring mind as she unearths memories of relationships, some dear, some not so dear. 

The Place of Our Meeting is a book I will continue to mine for the gems of rhythm and truth, and nuggets of a deep wisdom.

Following Hay

Following Hay

By Donna L. Emerson
Finishing Line Press, $14.00, 28 pages
Review by James Rasmussen

Have you ever stood on a deserted family farm, wandering among knee-high grass? The foundations that were once a house. The somehow still-standing barn and silos and rusting equipment. Even for those, like me, who are generations removed from living and working and keeping it, the farm remains alive within the eyes of parents and grandparents who carry that farm with them in their blood and sweat and the vivid stories they have passed on, which tie us to a life that becomes as real to us as our own.

Following Hay evokes that life. This excellent collection of poetry gathers timeless threads of a rural life that form a bridge between past to present, old and young, boy and girl, sharing memories that are as real and solid as the pages of the book, and almost within reach. The overall sense of the book... bringing forth a life that is not perhaps idyllic or better than the present, but one that is, nonetheless, familiar and comforting, full of homemade music, the scent of hay, handmade quilts, horses, and well-spent youth.

Donna Emerson has crafted... with precisely chosen words and carefully controlled lines, shaping an enduring vision of hay and horses and passing youth. Her language is simple and direct — no flowery verse here — only real, beautifully shaped language, the memories they carry achingly deep and real.  Like most good poetry, it is rich with imagery, using vivid imagery to form a vision that, because of its clarity and precision, becomes universally accessible. You don’t need to have lived on that farm, yourself, to miss it, because Emerson’s voice brings those memories to life in the present.  This is, simply put, good poetry.

Body Rhymes 

Body Rhymes

By Donna L. Emerson
Finishing Line Press, $14.00, 30 pages
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.

Morning Ride

This time we slipped out the screen door without slamming it.
Dawn shivered our skin as we skipped to the barn. 
I wore shorts so I’d feel her girth. Adan rode the bay in front
on the black and silver saddle.

We pressed through oats, wheat, Queen Anne’s lace.
Out to the pines where cold silence swallowed us.
The horses’ hooves made tiny brushing sounds on pine needles.
My mare’s breath before me, wreaths of white mist.

We looked for longberries.
Adan leaned to me, told me about babies,
where they really come from.
Fingering Jenny’s mane, my stomach spun.

We were riding ourselves, not grown 
but sniffing at it, high stepping
through woods where there was no trail.

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:”

. . .

The creamy walls stretched back for us.

Your mouth where my neck met my shoulders.
Your mouth inside my knees. My thighs
moved by themselves.

Your departures split us at the seams
while this one night stood,
stands still, while all else fell.

. . .

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:

. . .

Or that he had put his fat oversized hands
down my white batiste blouse, breaking the thin
embroidery floss ties, the day before,
me backing up into crates of apples, 
ruining the display I’d just set up,
trying to get away in a lady-like way

. . .

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.

. . .

The beauty of the bunch, perfectly formed,
“smart as a whip,” her father said,

she mustn’t put on airs, so he whipped her,
and she had no airs, and later she whipped us and we lashed

out at each other, all cracked and able to be cornered
until we broke apart and left her house
to find more air.

. . .

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.

. . .

Smack in front of us:
fast, hottempers, spankings, cold shoulders,
“God damn it to hell,” as she opened
boiled eggs for breakfast.

Yet coy, a flirt, beckoning us close.
Full-out laugh that tingled her toes,
even entire rooms, confessions
in cloakrooms, all her secrets.

 . . .

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. 

Body Rhymes 

Body Rhymes

By Donna L. Emerson 
Finishing Line Press, $14.00, 30 pages
Review by Glenn Dallas, San Francisco Book Review

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.