Review of Mercy Island by Ren Powell.

Review by Nic Sebastian.

The narrator in Mercy Island 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

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.

Nic Sebastian hails from Arlington, Virginia and travels widely. Her first collection, Forever Will End On Thursday was edited by Jill Alexander Essbaum and published by Lordly Dish Nanopress – a poetry press with a twist. Her work has appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Anti-, MiPOesias, Salt River Review, Mannequin Envy, Avatar Review and elsewhere. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale. She is building an audio anthology of her readings of contemporary poetry at Whale Sound and is the founder of Voice Alpha, a group blog focused on the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience.

* This review has previously appeared, at Goodreads and at Nic’s blog, Very Like A Whale.