by JACLYN DESFORGES
EMMA MCKENNA’S CHENILLE OR SILK
[Caitlin Press, 2019]
We are born in water. We dog paddle through story. We open our eyes and there we are: the IKEA tealight of consciousness flickering within our animal bodies, these soft containers at near constant risk of pain. We repeat what we’ve heard to protect ourselves, to maintain function, to continue forward on this strange and confusing planet feeling right, feeling okay, feeling good enough. We tell ourselves stories that make us feel safe.
It is the task of the poet to disrupt these stories. To remind us that our most strongly held beliefs about what it means to be human are just that – beliefs. And that the true world, the one beyond our normal state of comprehension, is as wild and terrifying as life itself.
Emma McKenna’s CHENILLE OR SILK is a cliché buster, a conscious act of disruption. Just as the atom acts as a microcosm of the universe, each of her stanzas reflects the larger whole of the collection, each line surprising in its own way, tenderly formed. Through tight and verdant stanzas, McKenna examines trauma, difference, queerness, class. Consider the first poem, Snaking, which consists of six octaves. McKenna surprises us early on with her imagery:
Were long and winding
Underneath railroad tracks
That cut boxes into the blue sky
And cast shadows
Like a giant reptile
Across the prairie floor
McKenna’s speaker walks these trails. She looks up. She notices what we don’t. The railroad tracks snaking above her mirror a rattlesnake at the ankle. And again, we’re surprised:
We thought enviously of the teenagers
Who climbed to the top and threatened to jump
To think enviously of suicide! It makes no ego sense. Our conscious minds rail at the idea just as our bodies hum in resonance: the envy of the unburdened, the weight we carry on our shoulders in commitment to aliveness, to each other. In the second-to-last stanza, McKenna writes:
Our eyes lock
In hopeful fear
That one of us will get bit
Quick, at the ankle
This poem speaks to something deeper than ego, something truer, more raw. It is unconcerned with the maintenance of illusion. McKenna’s work is risky – her speaker is honest, direct, unflinching. She writes: you respond with boredom / as I have again said the Wrong Thing. She writes, before you start to think I’m barren / realize I have these / twins of my own / Envy and Contempt.
In her 2015 essay in North American Review, the poet Robin Richardson creates a distinction between sympathetic and unsympathetic poetry. Poetry that is written in service of the writer’s ego – designed even in some subconscious way to flatter, to make the writer appear likeable and witty and agreeable – may be beautiful, but it will never be as impactful as the god-honest truth. Richardson explains:
“When we write without the censorship inherent in a ploy for likability we are free, admittedly frighteningly so, to show those things so few ever see, to add to the richness and diversity of the human experience. We promote empathy through exposure to those whose perspectives differ from our own while creating a haven in which those readers who resemble us find solace in the knowledge that they are not alone.”
By this and other measures, McKenna’s poetry succeeds. When women’s poems are inspired by lived experience, they are often referred to as confessional, as though the creation of poetry were some one-step act of emotional unburdening. A poem is not an outburst. McKenna’s poems are as tightly woven as they are emotionally resonant. They carry the ripe transcendence of lived experience and yet are presented tightly, carefully, each stanza lovingly crafted:
Why consider / the perfect stanza / when illness is expanding / in every opening
Why, indeed? The tension in this collection between the state and act of human consciousness and the end result, the poem, is tangible. That tension gives McKenna’s poems their power. That tension is what opens the window of anecdote to that fundamental truth: that as strange and wild as each of us is, we are not alone.
Jaclyn Desforges is a Pushcart-nominated writer, editor and workshop facilitator whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, Contemporary Verse 2, Minola Review and others. Her first poetry chapbook, Hello Nice Man, was published by Anstruther Press in early 2019. Her first picture book, tentatively titled Why Are You So Quiet?, will be published by Annick Press and released in 2020. She’s the winner of the 2018 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award and is currently completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.