Emerson’s set of poems reminds me of Donald Hall’s The Third Thing describing ‘the house of poetry, which was also the house of love and grief’. The three ideas of love, grief and poetry certainly form the tenderest of triangles here. It is one of those shifting triangles where sometimes grief might form the longest side, at other times love, and when they are all balanced: poetry.
There is a quiet dignity to certain poems that take one into a space closest to what we might call sacred or sacrosanct in our prosaic world. Renee Emerson’s set of four poems grants us entry to a fraught place of excruciating absorption, into the home and family. Plainspoken yet evocative, the compressed description makes each detail meaningful, ‘folded up like unsent letters, her spring clothes’.
These poems have an intimacy too exquisite to remain unknown – they open us to the stark factuality of loss that speaks for itself and will not be further interrogated.
— Mandakini Pachauri
The Bombay Literary Magazine
She lived here at home for six weeks.
I will never move.
I paint every room in the house,
brush new color on each wall,
across the threshold, lest the angel
ask for more.
Now, a desk where her crib stood,
a hollow closet and drawer.
But the house is still the same house,
and I carry her silent on my shoulder
all throughout it.
She twirled her feet—all she could move,
swaddled so she wouldn’t pull
the necessary breathing tube.
I hated its sci-fi blue, the concerned screen
ticking off numbers that made the doctors sigh.
Condensation grew in the plastic troughs
like spring rain in her collapsing lungs.
The tape across her lips, an underline for emphasis,
the order to breathe, breathe. It filled her face.
Every day the nurses entangled her with me,
umbilical of oxygen clipped to my shirt.
Once I became part of the machine,
we were left alone.
Muslin swaddled her arms to her side.
Silently, she cried. Every time we had the room,
I pulled her free of the fabric, held her
hands in my own, a softer confinement.
After three weeks of the ICU,
I don’t remember
what I’m thanking them for—
a meal, kind words, prayer.
I am offered so many prayers;
in exchange I give a medical update
in layman’s terms, its own kind of prayer.
Occasionally someone sends good vibes
or positive thoughts,
the way some people send fruit
when everyone else sends flowers.
Both vibrant, fragrant, though
only one meant to nourish
before dying in a bowl on the table.
Folded up like unsent letters,
her spring clothes.
She was always small, her body less
concerned with growth and fat,
more with the deep-sea diver’s work
of raising the chest again and again,
letting it fall to surrounding pressures.
Still I inspect her older sister’s hand-me-downs,
for stains, holes, blemishes given by wear.
As if she could wear them,
as if she were not neatly enclosed
to wait for the last days,
when we will all be read and understood.
Image credits: Pieter de Hooch, The Bedroom. Oil on canvas. Widener Collection.
Pieter de Hooch’s painting from the 1600s shows a moment of domestic felicity within the archetypal mother-child bond. The open door and child framed within seem to ask – is this a moment of arrival or departure? The mother’s eyes seek those of the child amid the coming and goings. ’But the house is still the same house’.
Renee Emerson is the author of the poetry collections Keeping Me Still (Winter Goose Publishing 2014), Threshing Floor (Jacar Press 2016), and Church Ladies (forthcoming, Fernwood Press 2023). She is also the author of the chapbook The Commonplace Misfortunes of Everyday Plants (Belle Point Press), and the middle grade novel Why Silas Miller Must Learn to Ride a Bike (Wintergoose Publishing 2022). She lives in the Midwest with her husband and children.