Lines in response to Ren Powell’s Mercy Island

Mercy Island by Ren PowellThis is the third of four books that Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I are encouraging others to also read and blog about this month. (You can order from the publisher before the end of the month and receive 15% off.) Send me the link to your blog post and I’ll update to include it. Posts so far include:

Rachel Barenblat @ Velveteen Rabbi: “Ren Powell’s Mercy Island”

Carolee Sherwood: “reading mercy island by ren powell”

Writing Our Way Home blog: “An interview with poet Ren Powell”

Kristin Berkey-Abbott: “Holy Week Readings of ‘Mercy Island’ by Ren Powell”

Deb Scott @ Stoney Moss: “Reading Mercy Island”

Dorothee Lang @ Daily s-Press: “Mercy Island – Ren Powell (Phoenicia)”

What follows is most emphatically not a review; some of these lines relate only tangentially to Ren’s poems (which is why I don’t name the poems). But obviously it isn’t every book that so moves me to write and to remember.

(p. 1) The head of state, polished to a high sheen, is not the kind of god to submit to questioning.

(2) I remember $24.95 in saved allowance, dimes & quarters stacked on the counter of the camera store in exchange for that black box, my Instamatic! And taking a photo of my shadow beside the pigs.

(3) Grandma had a slingshot she used on the guinea fowl, those perpetually agitated gray commas.

(4) When Elvis died, I knew it was because he had maligned the innocent hounds.

(6) Going home from the pet store, the goldfish on the back seat beside me vibrated in its plastic bag of water. Three days later, it died of loneliness.

(7) The brutal screwing of Muscovy ducks in a muddy ditch was my introduction to reproduction: The enormous male crushing the female, pushing her head under the water, threading her with a white rope.

(8-9) I hated everything about shooting groundhogs, especially when their big soft bodies slid off the shovel or when, wounded, they escaped a second shot.

(11) Starting to drown in the ocean, that second or two of great silence under the waves — yet another project I didn’t finish.

(12) Out of all the days I’ve lived in blessed doubt, the two when I flirted with certainty were enough to make me burn forever.

(13) Behind the barn, behind the barn! The place where chicken-killing dogs were shot. There alone we could curse to our heart’s content.

(15) I measure my life in generations of 17-year cicadas, Brood X. I was 9 the first time. In a jar at the back of a drawer, I still have one or two of those transparent shells with exit wounds in lieu of wings.

(16) Clowning in the lunch room, he pulled the neck of a turtleneck shirt up over his head & in a matter of moments earned the nickname that would follow him to the grave.

(18) My brother yelled “copperhead!” when my foot was in mid-air & I launched into flight. That evening we found the reason why it couldn’t move, its shed skin.

(20) I once paid a statue to talk. She was loud with rust.

(21) In one well we had what we called a mudpuppy, but it was only a newt.

(22) Whoever invented the kaleidoscope must’ve had a childhood like mine: no TV, no visits to amusement parks, plenty of time to look at each odd thing from every angle.

(23) In the 4th Grade I learned that the body is made up of rooms too small to see. I was a city! And there were whole districts that never slept.

(24) We brought one runner sled, red as a red wagon, down with us from Maine in our red VW bus. In summer, we built mazes of tunnels through the tall grass.

(26) Our sky was narrow but dark then. I used to feel sorry for the light of distant stars that had been traveling so long just to enter my eye.

(27) The only thing about highways I didn’t hate was the shimmering water that wasn’t there, what it taught me about thirst.

(28) We had roosters, so our breakfast eggs were always fertile. I dreamt of chicks hatching in my stomach.

(29) Escaped garden plants have taken over half the forest. A curse is nothing but a blessing turned feral.

(30) If a bachelor dreams hard enough, he can give birth to a migraine.

(32) She left a letter with the stain of a dead centipede & several promises.

(34) Ah, romance. I remember corn silk, the wet trail of a slug.

(35) I remember scraping the roosts, nostrils burning with ammonia, and that big black rubber tub bulging with chickenshit.

(36) Feathers falling from the sky are commonplace. What seems incredible now is that Grandpa actually took up arms against a hawk. But Bontas must’ve all been like that once. We drank, we gambled, we owned other human beings, we shot hawks out of the sky.

(41) I was a gardener of little faith. When seedlings came up, I was astonished. I couldn’t bear to thin.

(43) The back of a shy man’s neck is red from scratching. You wouldn’t guess how I know.

(44) We keep calling them mountains, these hills, in the hope they’ll outgrow us.

(46) Birds from the tropics fly here every year to sing. Also to make new birds, yes — & teach them the songs they never sing in the tropics.

(47) Surely the near eradication of lice and fleas on humans has done our species a great disservice. Books & scrolls are a poor substitute for that daily close reading of each other’s primary texts.

(49) I learned early how to hold my breath: at the conference about my unruly behavior, the exophthalmic teacher waiting for me to speak. Strapped in for the orthodontist whose fat fingers tasted like garlic.

(52) Missing for most of my life, I remember being stoned and present for a mother who placed my hand on her child’s bare belly to feel the sickness — blood flukes, perhaps? — like a burl on a tree. I showed her my wallet, already emptied for other mendicants, & said nothing about the belt full of bills against my skin.

(53) We just can’t help stealing each other’s souls.

(54) No sane person looks forward to a trip. I look forward to having traveled.

(55) I miss the two or three male friends I used to open up to, our shared vulnerability over open beers, the layers of blue smoke that wreathed our heads.

(57) You might not believe it, but the part of a woman’s body I most miss touching is the back, below the shoulder blades & above the hips, that flat pastureland with its single ridge.

(58) Tiger beetles anywhere in the world turn my older brother into a predatory beast, one who stiffens, crouches, springs.

(60) That the wind signed its name on our fingertips before we were born — well, I call it wind. Some impersonal force random enough to convey uniqueness.

(63) The idea of the Sahara: not the shadow of civilization but its impact crater.

(64) I used to trace veins of quartz in the local bedrock; now it’s threads of moss that draw my eye. I have left off believing in heaven even as a metaphor. I am homesick for earth.

(65) Night/soil.

(66) Only nonsense can save us now.

(67-68) Garlic & mint, mint & garlic: I would join any church that had that for a catechism.

(69) The trailer where we went one by one for IQ testing at the age of six smelled of new machines & fear. I remember being told I could watch myself on television — a closed-circuit TV, but I didn’t know that. The dim realization that fun was being had at my expense.

(70) The Flavored Nuts sign — conveniently posted at shoulder level — remained a site for teenaged pilgrimage long after the factory closed and cloying smells stopped emanating from its windows.

(75) Like a single Roman letter stretching into a cursive sentence, the great blue heron launched into flight.

(76) Do peaches float? I feel I should know this, I who once publicly embarrassed the author of a book called Stones Don’t Float with a piece of pumice.

(77) A mother grouse doing the injured-wing act led me to the edge of a near-cliff. I wanted to see just what malice she harbored in her speckled breast.

(79) There’s a desert under my floor where rain hasn’t fallen in 150 years — it’s dry as the Atacama. A strange hairy people live there. I hear them thumping rhythmically and moaning now & then.

(80) Grandma was the only person I’ve ever helped bury. She was anti-religious & unsentimental and wanted to be cremated. It still felt awkward to tamp down the soil, hopping on her grave in tight funeral shoes.

(83) Across the gulf of puberty I catch only the faintest echo now of my childhood misery. I wonder though if my frequent, public self-baring wasn’t essential training for the vocation of poet.

(86-87) In a world with lichen in it, nothing is lost. The fungi are farmers, pioneering the most desolate faces of rock.

5 Comments


  1. 1. One for the commonplace book/needlepoint gallery: “A curse is nothing but a blessing turned feral.”

    2. These lines would constitute a boffo coda cum bio for The Morning Porch book.

    3. Given Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, do female woodchucks pace the Atacama under your porch, picking over the bones of woodchucks lost?

    4. I should be rolling seed bombs rather than ordering poetry. Drat ya.

    Reply

  2. I love your way of responding to this book. It’s a long-form poem all on its own.

    Also, thanks for linking to my review.

    Reply

  3. I love this and am proud to be a catalyst to this kind of poetry!

    Reply

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