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Ren Powell's Mercy Island


I read Ren Powell's Mercy Island (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011 -- yes, that's the same press which published 70 faces) slowly, in bits and pieces, in part because I had to (life with a toddler is full of interruptions) and in part because these poems are sometimes challenging to take in and I wanted to give them the attention they deserved.

Here's a taste, from the long multi-part poem called "Red-Eared Slider" which takes up most of the first section of the book:

Suddenly, like rotting wood shooting out of the lake:
The photograph of Toby
straddling the cement tortoise...

I remember the huge snake
slide that wasn't quite slick enough
    it burned our thighs
        before spilling us into
            the sand pit with
            the tortoise

This poem turns and returns to its subject matter: childhood, memory, loss. Sickness and death. The turtle, a symbol maybe for the child who retreats inside protectively -- or maybe meant to suggest a creature nesting in the muck -- a hint of sex, a hint of death, always seen through the uncomfortable lens of a child's not-quite-comprehending eye.

Many of my favorite poems in this collection draw on memories of childhood. Like this one, "Bakersfield":

air conditioners hang from first story windows
dripping imploding stars
retracting irises on the sidewalk

I wear red canvas sneakers
tattered over the toes
a shorts overall with metal clasps

that burn my skin
like cigarettes flung in gesture
like whispers

Anyone can notice air conditioners which drip, but it takes a talented eye and mind to turn those wet drops into imploding stars and retracting irises. (That's the kind of image that makes me go "ooh, I wish I'd thought of that.") Childhood, in these poems, isn't necessarily safe: even the shorty overalls (I dress my son in those in the summertime!) are dangerous, and the comparison to cigarette burns speaks obliquely of a suffering worse than scuff-toed boredom on hot summer sidewalks.

Most of these poems are not overtly political, though one speaks of the 250 dead and missing women in Paso del Norte in 2005, and another -- "Girl-talk with the Poet from Ramallah" -- is shocking in its matter-of-fact references to violence and abuse:

She puts her hand on my hip
the heel of her hand on my hipbone
puncturing my social bubble.
She says they tortured her
fifteen year-old body
in front of her mother

And of course that poem breaks my heart twice over: once for the eponymous poet who endured such treatment, and once for the Israel of my hopes and dreams which would never have stooped to torturing children. That's my own baggage, I want to be clear; Powell doesn't mention Israel at all. But I can't read the poem without my own awareness of Israel, the West Bank, how often around the world women's bodies become the stage on which power struggles are played.

I seem to be citing the poems which most made me clutch at my heart. But there is also tremendous beauty here, and somehow the beauty is even more striking for its juxtaposition with the suffering. I'll close this review with one whole poem, the last one in the book (also published at Poemeleon) which I read as being written from the coast of Norway where Powell now lives:

A View from an Island

I am a Russian Doll
land within land

Sacred painting's
yellow ochre
my skirt
trimmed with lichen

Something is lost
leaving the heather:

The craggy beauty
of an old woman's throat
the mellow man's joy --

Something is lost
to the morning's mackerel
as they slap Hallelujah

I love the opening couplet with its suggestion that each of us contains multitudes within ourselves. Lichen, heather, craggy beauty, mackerel slapping on the dock: despite all of our human sorrow, these beauties remain.

This is a gorgeous collection of poems. Thanks, Ren, for writing them -- and thanks, Phoenicia, for bringing them to a wider world.