Reviewed by Alyse Richmond
Winner of the 2014 Autumn House Poetry Prize, 2015 winner of the San Francisco Book Festival Poetry Award, and winner of a 2015 IPPY (Independent Publisher) Book Award, Ellery Akers’ Practicing the Truth has undoubtedly left its mark on contemporary poetry. This collection teems with nature, from desert brush and east coast seascapes to turtles, insects, birds and snakes. Akers employs details of place with precision, constructing lucid images that not only draw us into her poems, but also keep us there to dissect her reflections on the self as well as family – specifically, the speaker’s mother.
Akers paints the mother figure in various colors that seem to suggest the speaker’s mood – silver, yellow and black – and, while her tone carries traces of nostalgia, she lets us know the speaker hardly pines after her childhood. More often than not, Akers is merely observing this “mother” rather than directly interacting with her. In “You Ask What Saved Me”, we gain a sense of this relationship, or lack thereof:
…You learn to listen.
You notice the clang of the lid on the ice bucket
and the sound of the ice pick
as your mother chips her way towards her scotch.
Here is an owl I made for her in school –
shoved into her drawer full of trash and cigarette butts –
staring back at me with eyes
pressed out by my thumbs.
Again, in “My Mother, Sunbathing”, the speaker watches her mother, almost reporting her every move, as though she’s a spy, someone unrelated to the woman being described:
…She lay on a lounger, oiled, eyes closed,
fished around the patio for her tumbler,
found it, stirred the ice with her finger,
then lifted it, eyes still shut, to her mouth.
Akers creates a feeling of wonderment and genuine curiosity towards the speaker’s mother. A palpable sadness accompanies her imagery, as there is a great distance between mother and daughter and, therefore, no hope of developing a relationship. However, I wouldn’t say that these poems evoke hopelessness. They simply state, here is who this woman was, and this is why she couldn’t bond with me. We detect this most clearly in “What My Mother Carries”:
…she is no
Atlas, only an anorexic with her hair burnt off by peroxide over
There is secrecy in the air around her, wigs on wigstands,
bottles of Ambien and Ativan, dresses with matching pumps.
You’d think it would be dark by now, but it stays under her
tongue, an atom of silver. It’s down to one photon, but it still goes
on shining, she will die with it padded and clouded…
The audience can feel Akers’ awareness of this mother’s inability to nurture. She is foggy with prescriptions, alcohol, an abusive marriage and possibly an abusive past, as her father is also portrayed as an incompetent parent. Akers alludes to this in several poems, most evidently in “The Shouting Match with My Mother: at Sixteen”:
With every stroke I was getting farther
from Cliff Break, the house my mother grew up in
and was broken in, a girl who could see the years rust
and the rust wash in with the scum of foam
in that cove where her father fished for her soul
as if it was his, and hooked it, and took it…
We’re confronted with this image of the father again in “She Always Dreams of Escape”:
The picture coming clearer in her body
as if she were both camera and developer,
the blizzard of years
becoming less blurred in the enlarger:
Here is the photograph: he is bending over her.
She sees what it is, where it begins.
The “he” bending over her can be translated as the father (the speaker’s grandfather) being an overbearing presence in one way or another. Akers doesn’t make this particularly apparent, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps with clues from other poems throughout the book.
In addition to examining inhabitants of the natural world, Akers focuses deeply on the composition of earth and of space in general. She carefully analyzes the complexities of matter, elements, the light of stars versus a dark that is generated by absence, and how all of this alters us as humans. She seems to be reminding us that we are animals, creatures reacting to our surroundings and coping with the constant uncertainties of a fleeting existence, as in her closing poem, “Breathing” where Akers writes:
You want sanitary? Go to some other planet:
I’m breathing the same air as the drunk Southerner,
the one who rolls cigarettes with stained yellow thumbs
on the bench in the train station…
…I have to remember I’m an animal,
I have to breathe with the other breathers,
even the stars breathe, even the soil,
even the sun is breathing up there,
all that helium and oxygen,
all those gases blowing and shredding into the solar wind.
Akers leaves us in a quiet place, a place we’re able to reflect on our own existence and contemplate how microscopic we are in the grand scheme of things. Her observations about sharing the same air as everything around us are indeed profound, albeit a bit humbling. However, this humbling is not delivered from a condescending speaker wagging her finger at the human race, but rather from a soft, compassionate voice of someone who cares deeply about the impact we make on the environment, and each other, every day. Ellery Akers’ Practicing the Truth is a scenic collection that meditates on the ephemeral and brings its beauty to the attention of those willing to listen.
Alyse Richmond is a recent graduate of the MFA program in poetry at Chatham University