by Britton Gildersleeve
I wasn’t prepared for Bryce Emley’s book A Brief Family History of Drowning. When given a book to review for Nimrod, I assume it’s poetry. And Emley’s is. But . . .
Is it mixed genre? Is it prose poetry? Does the form really matter? Well, to this writer and reader, it does. Because nothing in this tightly crafted book is accidental. Form, for a poet, is the clothing you wear to a funeral vs. the pajamas you wear to bed. It’s what you the writer deem suitable—as in, a suit vs. flannel, or a dress vs. a bathing suit. Emley’s decision to dress his griefs in clothes sewn from memoir, prose, and poetry makes of them something new. We too certainly suffer deaths of parents, regrets, and self-imposed guilts, but Emley’s book reads like a fresh iteration of these familiar losses.
The opening poem—“Prayer for Salt”—initially seems to promise more traditional form than the book delivers. But the following poem—“Renderings (My Father as Icarus)”—blows that expectation out of the water. With its overview and analysis of Icarus as a poetic extended metaphor, and the image of “his [Icarus’s] past composing his body’s mythology,” “Renderings” resonates on so many levels: Insightful imaging, reading, and more.
Much of Emley’s work in Drowning relies on an unusual fusion of marine biology and poetics, as well as (I assume) Emley’s long residence in Florida, that state of ocean and sea. In “Slow Biology: (My Mother as Greenland Shark),” the long-lived sleeper shark occasions an inquisition into death, into life. And, apparently—although she is explicitly mentioned only in the title—becomes his mother. In such lines as “It is possible death could be treated by slowing its approach . . . [i]t is possible Greenland sharks could teach us a more careful way to die,” the poet gently pulls us back to the human life behind the story of the shark, Emley’s mother’s life.
The collection of poems is a collage of sorts: images of death (Emley’s mother), illness (his mother’s cancer, his father’s stroke), and how such states of being both imprison and free, layer over a brother’s imprisonment, Emley’s grief, and reflections on all of these. Within the framework of this collage—these multiple layers of his history—Emley further develops his naturalist poetics. “Parabiosis: (My Father as Anglerfish),” leaves us with the deeply unsettling image of his father as a male anglerfish: “Mating requires a sacrificial unity: the male bites into her side, digests her flesh, fuses himself to her. There is shared blood, a becoming body.” An image which, in turn, doubles back to the Greenland shark, “living an easy, inhuman indifference to the silence growing in her gut, growing so slowly . . . growing so slowly.”
At the heart of Emley’s collection is a lengthy piece, “Mother, Mother, Ocean.” The title is a line from a Jimmy Buffet song that takes on the sheen of sorrow in this context, which has Emley attempting to negotiate the irreconcilable tension(s) from his father’s disability and his mother’s death. “It rains the day your mother died. Someone says the two events are related. / It has rained every day since, continues through the internment.” Grief and rain, Emley notes, are both processes, and similar at that. Death too is a process, one related to water: “The monitor didn’t flat-line that morning like you would have expected. It continued pulsing in waves, in-time with some other rhythm, indifferent.” Like the tide responds to the moon, so Emley’s mother’s death responds like water, in waves.
Water—rain, the tears of grief and loss, the ocean, rivers—is a critical element in Emley’s book. Almost every page shimmers beneath a watery reflection. The title has warned us—here is, indeed, a family history of a kind of drowning. Most poignant, perhaps, is the next-to-last poem in the collection: “A List of Waters.” In it, Emley moves from his detailed descriptions of his mother’s death and his own responses, to his father, as he has done earlier in shorter snippets: “When I talk about men, I always mean my father . . . When I talk about fathers, I always mean river. Or the other way around, we know them the way we read the earth where water has been.” He asks, “Is it wrong to love a man for what he’s made? / If not love, know. If not love, rend. / If not love, river. / If not love.” And ends the dark and uneasy poem there, in a subtle flourish of ambivalence.
A Brief Family History of Drowning rewards multiple readings. Don’t be misled by the prose poem style—each line is as carefully mapped as those of sonnets or other more formal poems. White space serves to set off specific images, formatting overall works much as it does in a more tightly compressed poem. And there are, to steal a bit of watery metaphor, eddies and currents and deep pools of introspection. You won’t drown, but you will understand just how you might, trying to swim through Emley’s dark waters.
Bryce Emley, born and raised in Florida, has published poems, essays, and fiction in various national journals: The Atlantic, Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Experimental Writing, among others. He is the author of a forthcoming poetry chapbook, We Might Never Be This Beautiful Again (Seven Kitchens Press), and Smoke and Glass, a fiction chapbook (Folded Word, 2018). Emley is Poetry Editor of Raleigh Review and works at the University of New Mexico Press.
Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.
A Brief Family History of Drowning, by Bryce Emley. New York, NY: Sonder P, 2019.