A Review of Emily Nilsen's Otolith
Review by Canisia Lubrin
On Day Eight We Cross the Arctic Circle
We appear on the other side scrubbed clean
by wind. It is an imaginary line, a coin pulled
from my ear, earth’s receding hairline, a cough
on the windowpane, a seasonal fen that hopes
to replenish itself, hardened yet marshy underfoot,
an ache and its itch. It kills birds in the morning
then brings them back to life. It’s the vocal chord
of caribou. Tied to its own demise. It has no texture
but that which it crosses. Walking backwards
will not undo what has been done.
Otolith, Emily Nilsen’s new pastoral, wakes deep in the ear and channels the reader through the speaker’s multifarious experiences of grief, loss, the burden of memory, us — the species and the self. We find that we ourselves are called through the ecologies of our becoming and undoing, such as the speaker’s “Wakeman estuary,” places where we can moor and unmoor often with a sea of white space, needed breathing room around these heavy poems that allow shifts in tenor, perspective, lush images, that recall expectations abandoned “nearer/the river as morning mist lifts/the drowned night/onto shore.”
In the section aptly titled Intertidal, the poems rest on the bottom of the page like anchors: Nilsen is painfully aware of the certitudes that demarcate in the world, the sites of our belonging, and we get the sense that she wants us to, like she has with her Solie-esque sway between human and landscape — trouble these. From “the city [that] scrambles like crabs on a rock, blindly/tinkering ahead” to the many homes in which “we fend off scurvy and make-believe our way/out of another tragedy.” The wild in this collection feels familiar partly because of the effortless, modulated cadence of Nilsen’s lines. And perhaps, because the poet has succeeded in doing a rare thing. She has found a way, not merely to remind us of our first sea-home selves, but also to convince us of ways that we create security out of uncertainty: that part of us that scuttles at the ominous, the thing we call sorrow that roils us with concern, further still, the stubbornness of a tomorrow that somehow opens up the pretext of the collection’s metaphysical conceits with cool, wry intelligence. Nilsen’s delicate lyric is a tide of language spare and cunningly innocuous so as to contain the reckoning of an instrument that both moves and holds us in place — the work of the otolith is not unlike the work of the poem itself.
Many of the titles enjamb into first lines like waves breaching shores. The poet’s B.C. coastlines figure significantly in these poems as they rift on the chasms between world and self.
Of the book’s four sections (Fog: the movement of the sun/passing of time, float houses, cabins, the otolith; Meanwhile: glimpses of the speaker’s attendance with the domestic; Intertidal: inward through the mazes of other people’s losses, particularly the speaker’s grandfather and his battle with dementia; and Meanwhile, yet again, that guides through the vestiges of future-time passing), this reader felt most carried by the poems in the Meanwhile sections. Their music and playfulness, a true earth offering rhythms to still or, when called for, levitate us through things that turn out “ache when spilled” (“Float House”). Such music in Nilsen’s collection is wide-ranging: the elegiac hymn, the lull of Zen-like poems in Meanwhile crack at the parts in us that tend towards restlessness and despair. These contrasted with bluesy poems like “Directions to Crabapples” make throws of hypnotic iambs into a full-on orchestra, revealing a world full of life and buoyancy opening “into Moore Bay.” Where there is decay, the reader is reminded, there is “No blue hour/to tuck into.” So get up and go.
Perhaps intervals for pulling out of the fog of discontent suffusing the dreamscape of Otolith would offer the reader some relief through variations of voice, which is largely homogenous in the collection. Yet, with titles that repeat throughout the book, the sense that we get exactly what the poet intends is real: our willingness to navigate the interstitial is more than a little rewarded in Nilsen’s masterful caesura throughout this debut.
Otolith takes the crude inventory we carry in us — how our many selves pass through the world lugging grief, loss, abundance, love — like the many stages of Nilsen’s waters depict our struggle against impermanence: fog, rain, seas, sweat, ice, brine — the necessary metaphor in the climate of our very bones.
Canisia Lubrin has contributed to many journals, anthologies, and has work forthcoming in THIS Magazine, Minola Review, and The Unpublished City through the IFOA’s Toronto LitUp, among others. She serves as an advisor to the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and on the editorial board of the Humber Literary Review. Lubrin is the author of the poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak & Wynn, fall 2017).