I've been reading Kelli Russell Agodon's blog Book of Kells for so long that I no longer remember how I first "met" her. I do know that I was lucky enough to be able to follow the entire journey of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, from the post about winning the White Pine Press Poetry Prize to the post about cover art, and finally the finished product. I ordered my copy directly from Kelli so I could have it signed, and she even included a drawing of a kangaroo, just for me.
I was remiss in not reading this book the second it arrived, but that's the joy of books; they wait and they are patient.
The poems in this collection are brave and brazen, addressing love and loss, questioning God and mortals alike, mixing Dickinson, Neruda, Einstein, and Alice from Wonderland with the deftness of a practiced mixologist. Here we have a speaker adrift in a world that often feels directionless, a speaker who desires nothing more than connection and yet finds that connection difficult because of the very fact that she is a poet: "the broken ones become artists," says the father in "Letter to a Past Life."
The father is a key figure woven throughout the book, a figure who influences the speaker when young and challenges the speaker's belief when he dies. In "Letter to a Companion Star" we see the speaker in the hospital and overhear the doctor. There is an epigraph from National Geographic about the Hourglass Nebula. The poem begins, "When the doctor said, / We're only delaying death, // I forgot words and let nebulae / answer."
Throughout the book, the speaker (who is unmistakably the same speaker throughout) makes declarative statements in an attempt to define herself.
In the opening poem, "Another Empty Window Dipped in Milk," she states:
"Trust me, it's not bitterness I carry
.....in my blood, but the pulse and flow
of ordinary, the white picket fence.....I like to call my ribcage."
In "Selected Love Letters I'm Still Trying to Write," she claims:
"I am the handwriting of a car crash,
bent metal and adrenalin-filled."
In "Quiet Collapse in the Dharma Shop," we are told:
"I celebrate small things
.......--apples, beetles, faith---"
I love that 'faith' is a 'small thing' here. Throughout the book, Kelli manages to take the ordinary moments of a woman's life and transform them into the extraordinary, the special, the saved. She is unafraid to tell the truth about what it means to be a poet as well as a mother, daughter, wife, and lover, and how sometimes those worlds don't always mesh.
Aside from the deft handling of this subject matter, the book is a delight of language. There are puns and anagrams and metaphors galore. There is music in the lines and specificity in each description. This is definitely a book to be read aloud and savored.
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Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room
Kelli Russell Agodon
White Pine Press, 2010