Neither the cover nor the title of Renee Emerson’s recent collection Keeping Me Still gives any real clue as to what you might find inside. Even the blurb is somewhat vague; it promises a “collection of poems like keepsakes of what is lost and gained as we move on, grow, and reach for something bigger – always with hope”. It’s the usual mystical hand-waving that you find on the back of most poetry books… but when you do get around to reading Keeping Me Still, you’ll find that it actually has a startlingly specific story.
We begin with a wintry poem titled “In Keeping”, in which a storm leaves the narrator’s house shrouded in frost. It’s an evocative piece – you can almost feel the womb-like sense of entrapment, of separation from the outside world. It’s a fantastic scene-setter. In the very next poem the story begins with the narrator and her partner attempting to have a baby.
The first few poems are somewhat montage-like in their approach. They layer image on image, tripping from one setting or idea to another without a backward glance. The first point at which I felt truly located in time and space was when the narrator gives birth to her daughter in the poem “Second Child”.
For a brief time thereafter we are able to believe that all might be well. We return to the wintry setting of the home with the baby, and observe her elder sister’s interactions with the new arrival. But this peace does not last. Tragedy strikes, and a curious thing happens to the narrative thread. Whereas up until this point the poems have been written from the perspective of the main character, the mother, they now take a step back. The woman who was previously “I” becomes “she”, and we suddenly find ourselves held at an unexpected distance from events.
It’s one of several clever tricks that really help to give this collection a shape and a form. It may not be terribly obvious what is happening at first, but it’s a thoroughly effective way to show the enormity of the narrator’s shock and grief. This idea carries on through the collection: in part two we retreat into memory, examining the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, rather than focussing on the everyday. The third section is a wistful look back at the beginnings of her relationship with her partner.
It is this third section that was my favourite. It is, perhaps, a little lighter than the other two. It is not so touched by tragedy, and there are even elements of humour there, like the sardonic and witty “Letter From An Occupant”, in which the narrator paints a picture of her first apartment, outlining the emergency plans available thus:
What will you do if there is a burglary?
Call the police, climb out a window.
What will you do if the gas leaks?
Call the fire department, open a window.
What will you do if there is a fire?
But it’s not all light-hearted fun. As the narrator grows older, we approach the point in time where the collection began. Keeping Me Still finds a fresh and subtle way of speaking about the effects of grief: it does so by not speaking about them at all, but instead retreating into the past. I was intrigued to see how this might resolve itself at the end of the collection. Would the poet return and re-examine the wound opened in the first section, or remain well clear of it, and focus more on the happy memories of the past?
Emerson does a little of both. The collections ends on another storm, which mirrors the one which opened it. There are mentions of loss and growth and the “indifferent vastness of heaven”. It’s not one hundred percent satisfying, but it does bring the collection around full circle, and provide some form of closure. These are accomplished poems, and their arrangement captures well the nature of loss. Not only that, but it manages to do so in a way that sets Keeping Me Still apart from the many existing chapbooks and poetry collections that speak of grief.
Christopher Frost now lives in Stoke-on-Trent, after studying at nearby Keele University. He is a freelance writer, and spends most of his time working for a local charity. In his spare moments he reads furiously, and writes book reviews.