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Sea Gate
ISBN: 1882295358
By Jocelyn Emerson
Review by: Shaun Moffitt


I have written poetry since I was a child, and I’ve been a lifelong reader of poetry, from classics to contemporary, and I still have a preference for poems that have a linear, concrete feel to them. Our current poet laureate Louise Gluck writes lyric poetry that many find quite beautiful; however, I don’t enjoy most of her poems, and I don’t enjoy them because I usually don’t understand what is going on in them.

Now, a given: I don’t have to understand a poem in the same way that I understand a newspaper article. I’m not being that obtuse. But my enjoyment comes from being able to picture an image or to smell it if necessary, to grasp a feeling, to delight in the way the words work together. As Robert Frost said, "poetry is a way of taking life by the throat," and I want to feel that when I’m reading a poem. I want to feel that life is being stripped bare and the core, the heart, the soul at the center is being revealed by the poet.

But when I read

Drifting between nothing
and sign,
the veil rustled amid April’s rapid certainties,
lifting in the remove between form
and form,

I can’t feel or see anything. I feel I am too dumb for the poetry in Jocelyn Emerson’s Sea Gate, her recent book of poems from Alice James books. I have a master’s degree in literature, but this is one book of contemporary poetry that stymies me.

There are some pretty words in these lines of “Sea Gate II,” but they leave me cold because I can’t feel or see anything in them.

A particular skill to become the symmetry
of radium and wing (and not intervene)
learning the new motions of a multiple
and parabolic construction, the wild
hypotheses of the inner ear, the illness
and equilibrium of unseasonable whiteness.

This prettiness is unlike, say, an e.e. cummings poem or an Emily Dickinson or a Dylan Thomas—where the words and syntax often confuse me, but I still can enjoy the flow of ideas and the finely-wrought concrete images. I feel that Emerson has a masterful control of meter and rhyme (especially slant rhymes), yet the poems leave me cold.

The one poem that does speak to me is “Iteration (II)” because I can picture the speaker transfixed under a bridge, and here, the

wind is in the middle of telling
something to the river which is in the middle
of describing it.

The poems in this collection are tightly woven together in a theme of sea, river, ocean, and the creatures of air and water. The objective, scientific tone that Emerson uses certainly gives her subject an interesting atmosphere; unfortunately, this tone doesn’t appeal to my poetic ear.

But Louise Gluck is our poet laureate, and I certainly think that Emerson’s poems are similar in style to hers. If you are interested in earth sciences and the connection between humans and nature, you might enjoy this book.

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