Book Review

Jesse Lee Kercheval’s poetry in I Want to Tell You works toward a language of matrilineage, environmentalism, and war. Any of these aspects would be an admirable and daunting task individually, however, interweaving their conflicts and constraints into singular poems yields a haunting landscape of grief frozen over. For instance, Kercheval’s poem “Say the word bliss”:

when the gaudy sun routs
the curtains

& velvet
drawn back from window after window
to let the morning in
& night has yet to be imagined

The temporal discrepancies in the poem are a ricochet: are we moving through time rapidly between morning, afternoon, and evening, or is this a single moment? Distorting an image in this way is a triumphant moment for Kercheval’s poetics, necessary for fulfilling the position of the speaker as they consider the internal-external landscapes of mother, daughter, lineage, human, and season. In Kercheval’s poems, the moment expands to accept the individual’s own circumference.

For Kercheval, movement is equally important to consider in the image—moving from place to place, the movement of rain, or the movement of attentions from ice to bird—as it is to consider in the lines of the poem. For instance, in the poem “On Being Still Alive,” Kercheval writes:

before this battering of water by spiked blue wind
before this brawl from lake to sky

I feel this need to ululate
I feel this need to bow
as the enigma that is life rains down


The poem, in my opinion, functions in and around the central evocation in ‘ululate’—the oncomingness of life and the near-spiritual need to grieve loudly. In this way, Kercheval invokes a poetics of call-and-response. Both parties are responsible for both calling and responding, though, as both parties are equally in contest with life and grief together.

Here I place Kercheval’s work in conversation with Judith Rauscher’s Ecopoetic Place-Making: Nature and Mobility in Contemporary American Poetry. Rauscher writes of the great Etel Adnan:

At first glance, Adnan’s poems, like many works by writers with a migratory background, seem primarily focused on the past and the present rather than the future. When they evoke the future, especially her late poems seem to do so much more by centering on the inevitability of death rather than on the dangers of future environmental catastrophe. Despite these tendencies, however, Adnan’s poetry of post-mobility invites readers to contemplate the very question Seymour asks when commenting on the role of literature for the production of queerer and more ecological futures: “What if we could imagine that environmental catastrophe does matter, even, or perhaps especially, if we are not going to witness its effects?”

Rauscher’s discussion of the future, the inevitability of death, and the imagination of impersonal catastrophe feels at home with Kercheval’s work as she considers the past and future generational storytelling of mothers and grandmothers and daughters and granddaughters.

Kercheval continues contending with this temporal movement in poems like “Train,” where she writes:

Back when movement
was happiness, desire was
being or not being the train,
which isn’t the tracks, endless
unmoving or the whistle dying
dying already gone. What
is moving is serious

This poem speaks toward the shifting of emotional perception of time as one ages—depending on one’s place within lineage, temporal movement is happiness or a desire for control. She writes, “desire was / being or not being the train showing the longing to be the object of motion, while perhaps not in control, knowing that one is what moves and not what movement moves upon. Kercheval continues to explore this theme of time as a force enacted upon someone rather than a force that one actively happens through.

Where, I believe, Kercheval’s poetic wonder becomes an outpour, is when she pairs this philosophizing around time with the embedded threat of environmental catastrophe. When seasonality is a threat that can catch a body off guard, ice as a killing agent as well as a reflective force, time embodies multiple forms of pathos: nostalgia and softer considerations, on top of threat and active demands. Kercheval writes in “Ice”:

Can I reach the lake before the dogs see me? The ice either a mirror or a wall where the soul divides. The soul always divides. This side pie, the other long life. A journey, planned or unplanned. I am baking a pie to feed my children. When a dog barks inside you, expect tearing, expect blood.

I once read that each line of a poem should strive to be impactful entirely on its own. In “Ice,” I find this truth—individually, each line evokes an entire universe of complications and roles that draw forth, as I mentioned earlier, the expansiveness of a moment. I want to ask questions of this poem—if the dogs see you, why will they bark? What of the undercarriage and roof of the wall? What does the pie mean to the children and do they expect it, crave it, or acquiesce it? Yet ultimately, the poem heralds movement as equally as it begets stillness. This moving immobility is such a representative human moment, a totalizing condition that summarizes both a linear progression of one’s life in parallel with an innermost paralysis.

Once more, I wish to bring in Rauscher’s work as she discusses Agha Shahid Ali:

Ali does not reject nostalgia in favor of memory as a seemingly more reliable and ethical basis for poetic creation. Instead, he embraces reflective nostalgia in A Nostalgist’s Map of America as a place-, history-, and ultimately environmentally conscious affect that is especially well suited for migrants who cannot depend on memories and experiences alone in order to build meaningful relationships to the places they only encounter in passing. Ali’s nostalgic ecopoetics of mobility manifests in two main ways: first, in a translocal sense of place that relies in crucial ways on migratory perspectives and literary imaginaries of displacement to evoke mobile forms of place-attachment and, second, in a nostalgic longing for a diasporic intimacy with the world that abandons the desire for an original or ultimate home without relinquishing the desire for meaningful human-place relations.

While Ali’s diasporic placemaking is very different stakes from long-term residency and its tying together of nostalgia with environmental effect, I think it can be useful to consider Kercheval’s work within a similar framework. Kercheval’s poetry seems to evoke mobile memories of displacement, whether through aging or through the unavailability to continue, that climate change enacts on others. Kercheval wrote in her titular poem, “This is Just to Tell You,” “I start to laugh & I start to cry / & even at the end of this book / I’ll still have no earthly idea why.” If anything is to be taken away from the poems found here and this musing, it is that life as a series of expansive moments does not fit within the boundaries and definitions of an earthly idea. Instead, Kercheval collects frameworks and places them alongside to ensure all of the oppositional or collaborative identities, roles, and ideas that occupy one’s mind have their place within any given idea. Stricken with occupation, it is this individual who then must brave a world everfrost-ily promising a lack and a destruction. Ah, what more there is to learn about this seemingly inevitable abandonment that our world so full of strife and climate catastrophe enacts upon us.

About the Reviewer

Cody Stetzel is a PNW resident working within electrical engineering. He has worked as the managing editor for Five:2:One Magazine and is currently a staff book reviewer for Glass Poetry Press. He received his Masters in Creative Writing for Poetry from the University of California at Davis. His writing can be found previously in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Across the Margins, Boston Accent Literature, Aster(ix) Journal, Glass Poetry Press, and more. Find him on twitter or at his website.