Book Reviews

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

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 

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 

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.