Neoteny (Emily K. Michael)

Reviewed by Stephen Kuusisto

Some years ago (too many now for me to recall) I heard a poet (who used a wheelchair) tell an audience she didn’t want to be identified as “one of those disability poets” as if any specificity of embodiment would ruin her work. One might as well say “I don’t want to be one of those humanoid poets” and be done with it. (At the time, sitting there in the stuffy auditorium I recalled these lines from Eduardo Galeano: “The Church says: the body is a sin./Science says: the body is a machine./Advertising says: The body is a business./The Body says: I am a fiesta.”) I said to my friend, I said: “She has a small fiesta.”

Not so with the poems in Neoteny by Emily K. Michael. The feasts are rich. Shall I say they’re adult feasts? I think so. Michael is a grown woman. As a poet she’s at home in the interiors like another Emily we know. Internal is where the meanings are and some fiestas are occasionally and agreeably dark. Michael writes:

I ache in that self conscious corner
of my heart, where other joys crowd —
Hope, reckless and springy underfoot,
shoulders old beliefs aside. I recognize
the step of a returning friend.

(Again with the “years ago” theme. I once argued with a poet about proprioception. He didn’t believe in it. I said there are corners of the heart where all the telegraphic signals from every neuron take shape.)

No one can teach you this. Emily K. Michael can take us to the darker fiestas. In some degree her poems remind me of Olav Hauge, the great Norwegian poet. Hauge:

If you can make a poem
a farmer finds useful,
you should be happy.
A blacksmith you can never figure out.
The worst to please is a carpenter.

Emily K. Michael:

My grandmother’s dining room table is covered
by rectangular baking sheets, each lined with plaid
kitchen towels. Bunches of mint still damp from
washing afford the house their fragrance.
I open the screen door and stand in the narrow
hall, shuffling my feet to smooth the upturned
carpet. One hand still gripping the ancient latch
I hail the commonplace: dewy and sharp

In just eight lines Michael presents us a poem of such intricate, serpentine, enjambed intelligence and sensitivity the commonplace is restored. Notice her feet smoothing the upturned carpet. Perhaps the least of it and yet, this is a blind person probing what’s before her and the feet have their places—probative feet in tune with the hand on the latch, keeping up with the nose.

Disability is not extrinsic to the imagination in these luminous poems but neither is it bossy and unduly declared which is proper given there are so many planets in the body, so many tiny dances to be acknowledged. Take the poem “Gallery” wherein the poet listens to strangers describe a carpet:

Two figures occupy the carpet’s edge hands locked
behind backs, eyes forward.
White cane cold in my fingers I wait
one-and-a-half steps away.

You see the concentration of color, one asks
lifting his fedora, resting long fingers on his hip.
The reds, the blues, this canvas is wild.

No, no, says the other, fiddling
with her scarf — a series of crocheted loops —
Look at how the objects are laid out. That
little dog in the foreground, somewhat hidden.

Ah yes, he sighs, adjusts the hat,
smooths the folds of his corduroy coat.
A nodding exchange, they glide to the right,
feet almost soundless on the sleek floor.

Of course, “of irony” poetry is never finished but the trenchancy in these poems offers something more than the caustic or bitter. Consider this poem by Olav Hauge:

Barley Field

An old woodcut of the London Bridge
and a colored lithograph of a barley field.
There are no other pictures on Ward D.

The London Bridge lifts sooty towers above the river.
But it’s the barley field I see.
A golden ocean of barley.

It’s not like the other grain-fields.
Maybe it’s those inward-looking eyes
gone into it so it becomes heaven?

A fall-colored sky, mild,
with no harvesters and no scythes.

Now consider Michael’s poem “Trading Threes”:

Step out onto the lawn at dusk, dog leash
loose like reins in your fingers.
Over the quiet jingle of collar,
cardinal voices cross the yard.
Crisp patterns of two notes clinking
from separate trees, the cardinals stretch
the ee to oo. A line with two
repeats. The near bird calls,
gets an answer some way down the street.
A second response further away,
then back to the first. Touch of
overlap—another grabs on to that next
line. Always in the same key. No body
speeds up, slows down, backs off. All
volumes shaded by geography.

Notice how both Hauge’s poem and Michael’s carry us into geographies that cannot be seen. Perhaps you’ll say this is a small “r” romantic trick but in each case the descriptions of even the most commonplace things have been steeped inside the body and reach the page after manifold and spinning ascents. That this is what the best poetry does is long honored but often absent in the contemporary breech. In an era of louche neo-confessionalism and the polemic, Michael’s poems stand out for their lyrical and probative depth psychology (if you must have a dry term) and they add (as she says above) “the overlap”—an architectonic intelligence which can only come from the body informed, the body at the fiesta.

John Keats said famously “the poetry of earth is never dead” upon hearing a cricket in winter. We forget he had to say it. Poetry makes things which we intuited true but only when the poet stands, sits, or rolls outside the narrow ritual circle of her culture. Here, in a simple poem entitled “Sap,” Michael says precisely what needed to be said:

Sing down your length along your roots
Running golden sticky sweet
You fly inside all green things
Scent of oakmoss suspended
Of aging sun and burnt red leaves
Congealing fragrant on fingertips
Tides rushing under rough curtain
My ear pressed quiet to the bark
No shining shell to catch the ocean

Neoteny is fresh, true, and memorable.

Title: Neoteny
Author: Emily K. Michael
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Publication Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Stephen Kuusisto directs BBI’s Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach initiative. A University Professor at Syracuse, he is the author of the memoirs Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”) and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light, and Letters to Borges. His newest memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, was published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, and The Ohio State University. Professor Kuusisto has served as an advisor to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including The Oprah Winfrey Show; Dateline; All Things Considered; Morning Edition; Talk of the Nation; A & E; and Animal Planet. His essays have appeared in The New York Times; The Washington Post; Harper’s; The Reader’s Digest; and his daily blog “Planet of the Blind” is read globally by people interested in disability and contemporary culture.  He is a frequent speaker in the United States and abroad. His website is: