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Review: Dinner with Emerson by Wendy Mnookin

Dinner with Emerson by Wendy Mnookin,
Tiger Bark Press, 2016, 108 pp/, $16.95



Wendy Mnookin’s fifth collection, Dinner with Emerson, is organized according to the four seasons. It begins with spring and runs through the year, followed by a fifth section, “Another Spring,” that features poems in a season that stretch beyond “Winter.” There is a sense of the ongoing about these poems, that life marches on, that we learn to turn the page, and that despite whatever we are slogging through, there will be another season. The poems in the final section continue to deal with change and loss, as some of the earlier poems do; this other spring is both new and renewing, and yet holds its fair share of hardship, as any season does. Balanced on the brink but not falling in, Mnookin’s book lives in the familiar terrain that most of us try to inhabit as our parents age and die, our children grow and change, and grandchildren and other renewals help us get back in the daily ring.

One epigraph for the book, from Lorrie Moore’s work, explores how March is militaristic in tone and should perhaps have a more joyful name, such as “Skip.” This ties into the second spring Mnookin enjoys at the end of the book; indeed, that section is preceded by an Ellen Bass quote regarding choosing to be happy. The Moore line at the start aptly foreshadows the way that Mnookin’s work engages in the world rather than just uniformly marching through the days. A second epigraph at the beginning of the book, about the reality of unicorns as spoken by the poet’s grandchild, speaks to another concern of the book, namely the magic intrinsic in the world, and the faithful belief in what cannot be seen. This book reaches toward hope, even as it allows for the sharper aspects of life to be included and examined.

The poem that kicks off the “Summer” section of the book, “Still Life,” ends on a line that is the crux of the collection: “I’m trying // to make sense / of what came before, / before I keep on.” Inherent in this is the looking back that Mnookin does, to her childhood, to her children’s childhoods. It is also a sustaining energy in her work, the way she does keep on. This “making sense” urge comes through in many of the poems in this section, as the poet considers the meanings behind the names for things and the many ways we draw lines to define our lives. And names themselves can be demarcations, such as the way the grandfather in “Central Park” “…let me call him / Pa, as close as I could come to Father.”

We find out in other poems that the poet’s father died young, and hovered, invisible, in the lack of pictures of him in the house, in the sobs racking her mother at night. In “My Mother Turns Ninety,” the father is summarized as “a secret saved for night,” showing how painful things must sometimes be cordoned off in order to process them. A way of dealing with emotion at the core is to draw boundaries, such as dividing a bedroom shared between sisters by drawing a line through it in “I’m Sorry,” or placing a curtain across the living room to differentiate work and play spaces in “Mornings,” or applying “… a grid onto asphalt, / marking off squares” in “Hopscotch.” The latter ends with the poet as a girl, the kind of girl “Who doesn’t touch a single line.” This speaks to the tension of needing to always balance in a small space that can almost not contain a person, such as a literal hopscotch square or life itself, as a metaphorical game we must try (and often fail) to play by the rules.

The liminal is addressed often in these poems, for example, in “Twelve,” a poem about stealing her mother’s pills, that touches on the time between choice and action: “I loved that part, poised / in front of the cabinet / at the moment of theft.” This part of the act is loved for the fact that it is full of the excitement of what is to come when the chosen pill is swallowed, but it also is the guiltless moment, when the theft has not yet occurred. Such in-between times are described in other poems, too, from the way light slowly paints a coming day and we hear “a cardinal’s vivid / two-world call” in “ Even an Angel,” to the way that one gets lost in a book—“that bright place / between absence and return,”—in “Midsummer Opera,” to the fact that life itself is a brief spell between states of being. In “Three Lives,” Mnookin writes of the declining health of her mother and of putting her cat to sleep: “Between this life and the next, / there is no space to hide.”

Many poems are portraits of intergenerational challenges: when one’s daughter becomes a mother and doesn’t want you in the birthing room, as in “Chimes,” when one’s mother tells you to keep her shoes you’ve tried on, passing on not just footwear but the painful legacy of the expectations of beauty for women, as in “High Heels.” Mnookin also captures her own childhood voice well, notably in the questions that populate her poems, for instance, in “Boardwalk Rhapsody,” in which she interjects “(‘what is a father exactly?’)” into the dreamscape lines about a father and daughter walking by the sea, or the queries stacked at the close of “Questions, 1959,” a poem that brings to life Pretty Boy, the parakeet:

Was he happy living with the other birds?
Whose hands were carved in the headboard,
holding each other tight?
How do you die of a broken heart?

That last is so poignant. It hearkens to a phrase we’ve all heard, but which, come to think of it, might terrify a child into trying to quell her emotions in order to not be subjected to such a fate. Mnookin’s poems risk and explore breakage, emerging stronger for the trouble. So, too, we as readers arrive at the end of this volume feeling in good company with the poet’s questions, and on sure footing, despite standing on shifting ground and amidst transience. There’s always another season.

Wendy Mnookin’s new book, Dinner with Emerson, is being published by Tiger Bark Press in March 2016. Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, and Grub Street. She is now mostly retired to spend more time writing and enjoying her grandchildren. She lives with her husband in Newton, Massachusetts. Learn more at www.wendymnookin.com

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