Andrena Zawinski: Poetry in Review
Then, Suddenly, by Lynn Emanuel, University of Pittsburgh Press
Lynn Emanuel's language is truly beautiful, making the reader feel at home in sounds and cadences and figures, as Eavan Boland aptly puts it. And if what makes poetry is this ability to sing out, then every line in each poem of Emanuel's latest collection resonates with the stuff of poetry, effused in an enchantment that draws the reader into a group of poems that rise tall among the best of contemporary American poetry.

Emanuel crooks her finger and pulls you right into her book. In her address to the reader--her first poem, Like God, which precedes the three segments of the book--she gives you a part to play, the one with the name of Reader. In this role you become interloper and participant at once, from the very first line: "Like God,/you hover over this page, staring down on a small town..." As you become mesmerized: "But you know this story.../is really About Your Life..." the responsibility of what happens when creative mind meets text is turned over to you: ".. you, who have/ been hovering above this page, holding/ the book in your hands, like God, reading." The poems bring home the idea that a poem does not begin to mean until it has the reader and all the reader brings to it with his or her own experience.

In the first part of this trilogy, in the lead poem Out of Metropolis, Emanuel takes you onboard a train which will carry you through the rest of the book--with plenty of stops. This train has a seat just for You, one where you can curl into the poems and take in the scenery:

...We're taking the train so we can see into the heart
of the heart of America framed in the window's cool
oblongs of light... 

...We want to feel half
of America to the left of us and half to the right,
like a spine dividing the book in two, ourselves holding
the whole great story together.

...and there is a name strolling across the landscape
in the crisply voluminous
script of the title page, as though it were a
signature on the contract, as though
it were the author of this story.

There are "...the featureless amnesias of Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada,/ states rich only in vowel sounds and alliteration...." --states of their own peculiar histories that have appeared in poems in Emanuel's previous collections: The Dig, Hotel Fiesta, Oblique Light. Emanuel, in this latest collection, moves you beyond all that, drives you on into The Book's Speech in which that train " looking through/the dark with the big round lamps of your eyes,..."

Emanuel poses questions to you--at the beginning of The White Dress, she asks, "What does it feel like to be this shroud/ on a hanger, this storm cloud hanging in the closest..." and answers that question: "... a road with no one on it, bathed in moonlight, rehearsing its lines." An intimacy between text and reader is something all poets hope to accomplish and that Emanuel does in a forthright manner, never once sacrificing her creative edge or losing control of that text.

In the second part of Then, Suddenly, Emanuel's deceased father interrupts the text, its narrative, its poetry, much like anyone might be interrupted by the voice of grief when it seems to speak to us. In the poem called Halfway Through the Book I'm Writing, she tells us he dies, and that just after he is buried in his Brooks Brothers suit, she says she "can't seem to keep him underground."

...Suddenly, I turn around and there he is just
as I'm getting a handle on the train-pulls-
into-the-station poem."What gives?"
I ask him. "I'm alone and dead," he says,
and I say, "Father, there's nothing I can do about
all that. Get your mind off it. Help me with the poem
  about the train..."

Emanuel's sometimes wry and footloose wit will amuse the reader, providing the necessary comic relief any good literature does and with perfect execution. And this moment is timed right, following on the heels of weighty and thought-provoking pieces like Inside Gertrude Stein and The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet in the second section of the book. Poems in that part include The Burial, The Corpses, Persona and others placed perfectly as a centerpiece in this feast of language. In Persona, she talks to herself:

No, I said, standing there clothed in the raiment
of a dead man. No, said the voice of the dead
man limping up and down the stairs of my voice....

In the third and final section of the book, there is a grounding just when you might have forgotten where you are, amongst the lilts between a post-modern playfulness and film noir dramatic: Elsewhere begins:

This isn't Italy where even
the dust is sexual, and I am not
eighteen clothed in elaborate

...I always remember myself
out of some plain place in the middle West,
some every-small-town-I-have-ever-hated-
and-grieved-my-way-out-of-in-poetry, chipping
the distance open with a train,..

And we remain onboard a bit longer, and we don't want to disembark. We want still a closer look at the poet herself, Emanuel provides it in Homage to Sharon Stone in which Stone drives past Emanuel's house and Emanuel becomes a host of things including "...the train pulling into the station..." and "...the writer/ trying to unwrite the world that is all around her." The last poem, the title piece, leaves us to catch our own trains pulling in and out of our various stations--aware, as Degas said, "the true traveler never arrives." Within Then, Suddenly's last stanza there is an intimacy with which we must now part, just as the poet waves us off with: 

..I am gone, and all that's left this a voice, soaring,
invisible, disembodied, gobbling up the landscape,
an airborne cloud of selfhood giving a poetry reading
in which, Reader, I have made our paths cross!

Mark Doty sees the collection as a questioning of "the relationship between writer and reader: a tango, a coupling, a gamble in which the author seems to hold all the cards" and calls the poems "sophisticated, deeply knowing" (which they are). Of Emanuel, Gerald Stern says "her vision is original"(which it is).

This is not the easiest collection to keep step with; but do go in there, reader, and dance around. You'll ache in the end with earned satisfaction.


LYNN EMANUEL directs the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh where she is professor of English. Her individual works have appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and in Best American Poetry. She is also author of Hotel Fiesta and The Dig--a National Poetry Series Award winner.

Then, Suddenly
67 pages
University of Pittsburgh Press
Pitt Poets Series

Andrena Zawinski, born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, now lives and writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poems have appeared online at Adirondak Review, For Poetry, Disquieting Muses, Zuzus Petals, and other sites. Works in print have been published by Quarterly West, Santa Clara Review, Paterson Literary Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is Features Editor for


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