Reviews, Vol. 5.3, Sept. 2011
BatCat Press, May 2011
Hardcover, hand-bound, 28 pp., $10
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Where Nothing Can Grow is Academy of American Poets 2009 prize winner Renee Emerson’s third published poetry collection. The hand-bound, hardcover, 20-poem collection is the fourth major release from student-staffed and -operated BatCat Press. As the title suggests, the poems are, as a whole, grounded, and reflect in theme the often hardscrabble soil we have to work with–a soil where presumably nothing can grow.
The opening poem, “Keepsake,” grounds the reader immediately in the flowerbed where an iris is planted that once lived in the late grandmother’s garden. It is this idea–that of family, death, roots (origins), and the potential for growth–that quietly sets the tone for the remainder of the collection. We are not so much introduced as we are let in to Emerson’s ideas and interpretations of the world that surrounds her. “True Story” begins with “stars over Alabama” and ends with a reflection of an “airless heritage, naturally poisonous.” What is in the space between is all the stuff of southern childhoods:
Rusted river boats,
Human bones, three-eyed catfish
in the Memphis mud.
In “Space and the Space Between,” Neil Armstrong is not just the man who walked on the moon, but a man of the earth who lost a finger in a farming accident. He becomes a star who came back down to earth, because his origins were there in the first place. The man who first walked on the moon is just as human as the rest of us; i.e., we can all reach great heights, no matter what soil we spring from.
In terms of mechanics, Emerson shines. She often locates the extraordinary within the mundane. In “Paroled,” the mailbox, day after day, remains empty. The nonexistent mail becomes instead an idea, where “each bird [is] a message. Feather letters.” While poems like “Paroled” are interesting linguistically, “When You Drop a Line In, You Catch Something” is stunning for its use of imagery and metaphor. As with much of Emerson’s work, a line or phrase or word or idea sneaks up on you. Here, the unexpected resonates and fishing, literally interpreted in multiple examples, becomes a metaphor for writing.
“Folding In” is impressive for its rhythm and movement. The imagery cleverly links the visual to the auditory/perceptual, where in the transcription of the senses can be found an interpretive prowess that, appropriately, is drawn from within the simplicity of home, the author’s vantage point:
In the morning, I felt the glass,
the thin sheet of ice
formed over it. Through this,
I could not discern the outside world
as more than a voice
heard through a wall.
The home front serves as an interpretive beginning for the authorial voice, or where she seems to have found her voice, and “Folding In” reveals the process in its ending:
When the voice had no words,
I made my own words.
When the coldness had no home,
I held it in my bones.
And above is what we see as an author’s process, presented in metaphor. Often, we make words (or poetry, or art, or music) from nothing, drawing from an existence or experience that offers little beyond desolation and mundanity in and of itself. This idea is true for many writers, who draw from their own experience and lives (home, family, upbringing) to create meaning and interpretations through words and language, and that decision to create is the choice to make something out of nothing, out of a soil where nothing should be able to grow. The idea here is to reach out beyond that soil, to climb up out of the hard ground. That idea is so nicely illustrated in “Cicada Shell” (what do have but what we create?):
I’d climb up
the tree like a staircase, so easy,
hunting for the gaps where the sound came out,
then turn from the trunk and look
over the chain link fences that hid
our nothing from everyone else’s nothing
If pressed for a criticism, I would have to say that sometimes the imagery is buried in obscurity, but this happens rarely. In “True Story,” sometimes ideas feel incomplete and disconnected (“mice” are introduced as a sort-of metaphor, but the metaphor is underdeveloped and by the end, becomes unearned). Overall, Where Nothing Can Grow is strong as a collection. The themes and running metaphors connect each poem like a family history that, whether Emerson intends to or not, grounds the reader in her experience, which seems to be where everything has sprung up for her–something that connects her to the experience of so many other writers.