‘Mercy Island’ by Ren Powell

The narrator in this fine collection is explorer and cartographer of a multitude of emotional, spiritual and international landscapes. Whether ruthlessly illuminating even the darkest corners in the rooms of herself, or putting on the lives of other women like so many beautiful garments, with tenderness and respect, Ren Powell’s narrator holds our attention and enriches our thinking.

The themes of death, sexuality and violent change – for humans and animals alike – run close to the surface throughout the collection. The earlier sections are fraught with pain and lack of trust in others and in the mechanisms of life and emphasize self-reliance:

There are
no permanent bridges,
So I carry a continent
on my back.

while the later poems expand geographically and thematically and become more open-hearted, empathetic and confident, while still retaining their fine awareness of the existence and impact of random pain in the world.

Something is lost
leaving the heather:

The craggy beauty
of an old woman’s throat
the mellow man’s joy -

Something is lost
to the morning’s mackerel
as they slap Halleluiah
Halleluiah

There is a deep and moving empathy with other women across the globe in these poems. I particularly commend three beautifully tender portraits of women – Gulah; On Karl Johan; and A Strange Woman. I wish more of Ren’s poems were available online so I could link to the ones I really love in this collection! My ultimate favorite is A Request for Sound from a Televised Report from Afghanistan, which is stunning in its musicality, delicacy and empathy. The ghazal that she has known runs a close second, as does Spinster’s Shroud – a lyrical description of a dress made from “hollowed egg shells / and white thread” – that contains entire universes of longing and expectation and pending pain.

There is a lot to absorb both in terms of content and perspective in this collection, but it’s well worth your time. Go read it!

Update: Ren added some links to poems from the collection that are online in the comments at the Goodreads version of this review.

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