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reading mercy island by ren powell

March 30, 2011

At my new job (where I have been for almost five weeks already, can you believe it?), one of my tasks is to assist fellow staff members with their blog posts. Often times, this involves talking them through the ideas they have and helping them find some direction for the writing. At first, the ideas come as stream-of-consciousness, but by the end of our sit-downs, their articles have taken shape. We have a sense of the thing they’d like to talk about.

I’ve decided to try a stream-of-consciousness approach to writing about Ren Powell‘s Mercy Island, a 100-page collection of poems available in print or as PDF from Phoenicia Publishing. And maybe by the end you’ll have some sense of “the thing” I’d like to say about Ren’s new book.

It’s always so exciting to me when publisher Beth Adams releases a new title. Not only does Beth have a great eye, but also many of the authors she publishes have been part of my online poetry circles for years. It’s so nice to witness their successes, and it’s wonderful to see their work assembled so beautifully.

I really enjoyed the collection, and I hope that comes across in this strange format. I am presenting it this way purposefully. I thought about creating a narrative, more formal style from my impressions, but I am still going back to the poems. That narrative hasn’t quite formed for me yet. I am left in wonder a good bit of the time, but it’s a good sort of wonder. There are lots and lots of open spaces in the poems, and I think this odd list-style review gives you a better sense of that than if I waited until my logical brain filled in the nooks.

As I read Mercy Island, I typed a list of what came to mind. Here are most of those notes:


Cover image. Stunning.


Oh, Ren! These poems are full of words — terrycloth, grilled cheese, aquarium — that make me say, “Hey, those objects are in my world, too! Why haven’t I noticed them?”


Love the arrangement of the text on the page. It intrigues me. I rarely think to do that as a poet. And it really casts these poems into a less literal space. Works!


The language: Why am I getting the sense of mating? Copulating? And not salaciously. But curious. And somewhat frightening.


Cover image on my mind again. Perfect. Fetal. Intriguing. Disturbing. Odd. Is it what it looks like? So perfect for the poems in this collection. They are all that way.


There is something always wrong. How beautiful the world and yet I can’t rely on it. Here, “A Creature Bearing Fruit:”

early morning wet
musty from the dream that gathers itself—spent
tip-toeing in the dim light
and the baby flops like a slippery fish
from the easing grip of muscle

If I am honest with myself, I know what that means (or what it means to me). But I don’t want to be honest with myself. Try to forget.


“Graduate Studies!” I love this! Baboons. Masturbating. Scientific observation. A relationship. Its structure. It’s difficult to count the number of cages / or the number of sterile, linoleum squares /between Stephen and me. Linoleum between us. Yes.


I can’t quite make-out the dead animals or the living ones. Slightly blurry. Maybe best that way. Has the same injured kitten been presented to the same boy twice? The first time it was too late to turn away. Now?


These poems all have secrets.


And sexy. These poems are sexy. And if I say dangerous, too, you’ll get the wrong idea. It’s not the danger and sex we’re used to from action heroes or rock stars. It’s something like the edge of the world.


This line from “And when we met:”

Your story was spices and metals I couldn’t identify

Precious and somewhat removed. Like the poems?


No. The poems are like this, these lines from “that she has known” (a ghazal):

Three fingers trace the serpentine of that she has known

The slow extraction of sermons from a ribbon of gut.


Thinking about form again. These poems are so purposeful. Where the words are. How they fall. And that’s what they do. They tumble.


These may be my favorite lines. They’re from the title poem “Mercy Island:”

The dog’s coat is wet against my leg
and gritty-cold like salted cod
We breathe small clouds into the morning air
she shakes and freckles me with mud
She trots beside and circles me
as diligent as any lover


Love the disjointed feel that is throughout the collection. Don’t know exactly what the first line of “Immigrants” means (There are fish swimming just above my ceiling), but I also don’t feel like I need to know. And here it is again, reinforced in “On Karl Johan:” thinking / about the woman neither of them will mention. Ren’s poems are doing that to me. Showing me things I may not know how to talk about.


Don’t forget this: how she spreads stanzas out onto new pages, leaves poems for the next page to finish. As a reader, start to wonder when the page goes blank if the poem’s really done yet. Don’t find out until the next page. Creates a hesitation, a lilting, like in the poems where the men are writing and rewriting the letters.

  1. pepektheassassin permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:42 pm

    Oh, this would make me want to read it — as if I had not already done so. And love it….

  2. March 31, 2011 9:55 am

    Carolee, thank you so much for really reading these poems, and taking us along on that journey in an unconventional way — it’s so much more meaningful, interesting, and personal than a standard “review!” And, of course, I’m thrilled you enjoyed the poems and the visual aspects of the book itself.

  3. March 31, 2011 10:01 am

    I just told Ren on FB that I had a more visceral reaction to the poems than an intellectual one, and so this was the only way I could go. Hope it communicates my high opinion of the work! Thanks for giving me a chance to review it.

  4. March 31, 2011 10:50 am

    This is the kind of book-response I aspire to blog myself. Linking.

  5. March 31, 2011 11:13 am

    “Showing me things I may not know how to talk about.” Since this is the highest praise I can imagine, I am grateful you took this leap to respond in this imaginative and honest way!
    Thank you so much, Carolee.

    • April 2, 2011 6:46 am

      Even as I tried to explain the work to Jill at our lunch date yesterday I struggled. Which is so interesting to me because the poems are accessible and I found many entry points. I think the poems capture that stuff in our peripheral vision, the stuff on the edge of our understanding … and yet those things are also right in front of us and in our hands. I love the tension of that in the work.

      • April 2, 2011 7:05 am

        Wow. I am really happy to read that comment, Carolee! That is what I think poetry is about … to say what you can’t discuss otherwise, but can sense and know anyway. I know officially consider myself a successful poet.

  6. Rivenrod permalink
    April 2, 2011 7:31 am

    Refreshing and honest approach. Impressive!

    You have done something many have failed at – I will buy this book on recommendation. Thank you.


  1. Join the Via Negativa Poetry Month book club!

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