These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.
19 of 100: Every Room in the Body by Kerri French (2017, Moon City Press)
Quick, personal thoughts:
- I suppose it’s up for debate if we talk too much or not enough about women’s experiences of pregnancy/childbirth (or their lack). But either way the balance of what is found within that discourse is out of whack. As a society, we invest heavily in the “joy” part of the equation. While it seems more common now than when my kids were babies for mothers to admit that we’re often not up for the rigor and sacrifice, still very little is spoken about the fear and despair that comes along with conception, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. For example, we don’t speak enough about loss (or the threat of loss as this collection details) and loneliness. I am as guilty as anyone. I rarely discuss my own. I am mother to three big, bright, big-mouthed and big-hearted young men. At the same time, living alongside my amazement that I get to be their mother are vivid memories of four miscarriages, a pregnancy I bled through, the months I spent on bed rest, the 2-3 X/day injections, an emergency C-section and the incredible loneliness that comes with being partnered but having 99% of the truthful conversations on these events exist solely between you and your own body. This poetry collection captures that loneliness with incredible clarity. I’m grateful for what Kerri’s voice and narrative brings to the discourse. And although I’m certain there must be very powerful personal essays on the subject, it’s obvious to me reading this book that poetry may be the most effective way to capture the incredibly surreal fact that another body is living inside your body. Kerri skillfully deploys the devices of poetry — metaphor, image, line, white space, repetition, etc. — to bring the reader along for the wild, precarious ride.
- But Every Room in the Body isn’t “just” about that. It’s also about how we experience the world when we have something else that’s consuming us, the way time passes (or doesn’t) when we are preoccupied, the way we can be, as they say, of the world but not in it.
- I want to revisit the repeating images/ideas in this, including the colors green and blue, the boats, the birds/nest, the horses and the walking. Sometimes, a poet’s obsessions can get redundant. I’m guilty of this, I think, writing about the same thing again and again without making any progress at all. But Kerri avoids this, and I want to see how she does it, how she makes the recurring elements work for, not against, their own accumulation.
- As I work on my manuscript (which I will someday soon, perhaps, maybe, possibly), I will also keep in mind these thoughts on ordering a collection (from an interview Kerri did with Deborah Kalb): “For a while, the order was very linear, with all of the pregnancy poems bundled together in the last two sections. What finally clicked was shifting things around so that the book started with the pregnancy and then flashed back to earlier points of time across all three sections. I found it also helped to remove the numbering of the sections and give them titles instead. This allowed me to group poems together in a way I hadn’t previously considered, and starting the book by revealing what is at stake right away helped me to discover a new way of looking at the narrative.” I like how Kerry phrased it: “start the book by revealing what’s at stake.” It was really effective for this book; as a reader, I was engaged immediately in the journey and how it may turn out.
Lines I want to remember:
- “Afraid to fall asleep, you learn / that to wait is to mourn, // each day that passes one more / that you live without a daughter, // a son. The sun rises / and a baby is still inside, so still // … You learn to wait / is to hope, a different kind of disease. // No one tells you it will be OK.”
- “I crawled to the body’s edge.”
- “It was winter and I had not yet / grown tired of crying in my office,”
- “Here is the sadness sleeping / beside her, a family of birds nesting / in snow. Here is the bulk of all // that grammar, handfuls of horses running / until they find no edge.”
- “White dresses / fallen from a clothesline. A train window / slamming open, shut. Thirst of the chest. / Bird in the throat. A dog’s blue growl. / The baby a kind of season. April, a kind / of stillness. Constellations shaped / like hammers. Hammers shaped like stars.”
- “There would be no off-screen // shots of unwrapping condom, no clumsy reach for bra, / the long rip of a zipper, never in the back seat of a car // or up against a bathroom stall. We would wake / looking perfect, no worries except for what the writers // may throw our way:”
- “I spoke to weather but not myself.”
- “We carried groceries through wind, / snow. Always discounted bread / by afternoon. Each spring, horses / slept in fields behind the cathedral. / If we knew one day all of this would live / only in our bones, we never let on. / We measured time by how long / we were together, never by counting / the days until we were gone.”
What others have said:
- from A. Van Jordan on the book’s back cover (as shared on Kerri’s website): “Entering Kerri French’s masterful debut collection, Every Room in the Body, is like walking through a door into a new world, one in which we find ourselves following ‘a map to every room/ in the body,’ which we discover is a world onto itself. It’s not just that these poems talk to the interiority of our lives that I find so astounding, it’s that I believe these poems are the map, which surprises me with every line, navigating us through the most challenging terrains of our lives. As a reader, this is the collection I’ve been waiting for, and ‘the waiting was like a dance/ inside me.’ The dance on these pages, though, is one between the wisdom of an old soul and the nimbleness of a dancer in her prime.”
- from Sarah Freligh on the book’s first page (as shared on Kerri’s website): “Each line in this fine book is a depth change packed full of images that are at once gorgeous and devastating. Each poem ratchets the tension higher. We tiptoe through this minefield of ‘will be/born but maybe not’ with held breath and hope growing in our guts.”
- from Literary Mama: “Every Room in the Body records a fraught, high-risk pregnancy and the terror of living within uncertainty about your own body. After establishing an unsettled feeling in her pregnancy, Kerri French reveals something staggering in ‘Diagnosis’: ‘You’re told your baby will be / born but maybe not alive.’ Suddenly, the speaker and the reader are thrown together into wondering and fearing. Will the baby live? Will she be made mother of a living child or a dead one? What signs should have been clear? What did she miss? All the ways that a woman wonders during her pregnancy, all the ways that hope can boost and betray come to the forefront as French moves through the agonizing months of trying to keep her baby alive and herself sane.”
- from Glass: A Journal of Poetry: “French’s poems are filled with the kind of minute detailed observation that often accompanies the deepest states of stress and anxiety, and yet, as Maggie Smith points out in her blurb, are ‘so controlled.’ This control of language mirrors the speaker’s desire for control over the situation, her own body, or the external forces at work — all of which come to a head near the end of the book. … There is beauty and pain in abundance in Kerri French’s debut — a book to be absorbed slowly, for its beauty only becomes more potent with time.”
Where some of the poems from this collection live online:
- “In Which I Play the Part of Myself“
- “To Bring Milk Anyway“
- “Blue Feathers“
- “Perigree;” “Years From Now, I Remember Our Vacation;” and “37 Weeks” here
- “The Funeral Year” (with audio)
- “The Doctors Asks Me When the Pain Began“
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!