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Review of Practicing the Truth by Ellery Akers

Autumn House Press, 2015.

by James Crews

I was astounded and carried away over and over by the poems in Ellery Akers’ second collection, Practicing the Truth. Winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize selected by Alicia Ostriker, this book offers glimpses of a difficult, haunting past that the poet has somehow come to terms with, even as she accepts that she can never fully escape it. It might be easy for poems like these, which recall an alcoholic mother and abusive father, to devolve into melodrama or blind anger, but happily, that never happens. Even in a poem called “Rage,” Akers grounds her images in the actual world so that her personal rage becomes universal, transformed by metaphor; she writes: “It has been the fuel, the cords of wood, pig iron, slabs, freight, pitchforks full of hay still smelling faintly of the fields, stones and magma: lava beginning to pour, leakage, breakage, storage and slag, the inferno contained in a Bunsen burner . . .”

Readers will be hard-pressed to find another poet who speaks so honestly and clear-eyed about the anger, grief and joy of this life. And for Akers, who is also an artist and naturalist, the earth both redeems and saves. From an early age, she seemed to understand the solace that the natural world can provide, as in the poem, “The Shouting Match with My Mother: At Sixteen,” when she finds herself retreating to the sea:

I swam so far the lights on the shore
looked like gold bees, and then like pollen.
I wanted the cold, and the shock of cold
and the salt that crossed back and forth between my teeth,
I wanted the sea to slide over my body
and rinse the anger out of my hair . . .

There is a way in which Akers’ poems seem to unfold as if by instinct alone, every line and word pushing forward to say one true thing after another. Perhaps this should be no surprise since she has taken it upon herself “to say a word for this world,” as she writes in “After Reading About the Next World”:

even though it’s true everything is worn or wrong,
even sex is awkward, our bodies folded around an answer
which we blurt out, startled, like a student at the back of a class.

She also acknowledges, however, that what we think of as the flaws of this messy, earthly life are just as often the keys that unlock a sudden and lasting gratitude. She asks:

What about rust? What about lint?
What about hair in a sink drain,
the small wasted efforts at a poem,
the rasp of a crow, squeak of a faucet through walls at night,
a dog racing around after being hosed and shampooed
and shaking drops right into your eyes.

Akers realizes that to write of the world we live in, and yet leave out “lint” and “rust” and “the mold on an old plank or a washrag” is to omit some essential part of being human. She also cautions against trying to escape the everyday “ruin” and suffering we must all sometimes endure, especially when writing about her sister, who passed away from a blood clot during cosmetic surgery. In one poem in which Akers addresses her sister directly, she captures the bafflement that accompanies any loss:

Now you’re there, stenciled into perfection,
your name carved into stone.
And I’m here. The day sprinkles its minutes across me.
I’m throwing out the garbage, crinkling a paper bag,
savoring the taste of water from a dented Dixie cup.

She shows us that, although the living are left to count the “minutes” filled with menial chores, we can choose to “savor” something as plain as “the taste of water” in that Dixie cup or the sound of a paper bag crushed into the garbage can. In this way, her poems remind me of the work of Marie Howe and Ellen Bass, two poets who often celebrate the small, unlikely moments of transcendence that can arrive during the most mundane of errands or repetitive tasks. Akers also reminds us that we can relish—while we’re here—so much of the stuff of this world, including the fact that we are miraculously breathing the expelled breath of countless others on this planet. As she points out in “Breathing,” once again communing with the natural world and rejecting the distance poets sometimes place between themselves and readers: “I love to feel as if I’m just another body, a breather along with the others.” She goes on to speculate wonderfully about where her previous breath might have come from:

maybe some of the air I just swallowed used to be inside the hot larynx of a fox,
or the bill of an ash-throated flycatcher,
maybe it just coursed past
the scales of a lizard—a blue belly—
as he wrapped himself around his mate . . .

True to form, she does not confine her leaps of imagination to the more stereotypical aspects of nature; instead, she prefers to see us all breathing together, regardless of class, background, and location:

You want sanitary? Go to some other planet:
I’m breathing the same air as the drunk Southerner,
the one who rolls cigarettes with stained yellow thumbs
on the bench in the train station . . .
I have to remember I’m an animal,
I have to breathe with the other breathers . . .

After reading Practicing the Truth, you can’t help but breathe a little more easily: such is the open-armed, wide-eyed, inviting nature of these personal and expansive poems. You heave a sigh of relief that at least one more poet is describing—and praising—this broken, beautiful world, exactly as it is, no matter how “worn” and “wrong” it can often seem.