Finding Poetry in the Potato Room

So far this month I’ve been talking about poets with established reputations, but I want to discuss a poet whose work I enjoy, but who only has one book out.

A couple of years ago I was able to go to the AWP conference in Denver, and the book fair was my downfall. Every time I walked through the room, I inevitably bought a book or literary magazine or several of each.  The fact that I wouldn’t have come across some of these books otherwise was the driving force in my purchases.  I would see an intriguing cover of a book on a small press’s table, and it seemed to say that this was my one chance to take it home, feel the pages between my fingers, and read its text.  I said no to many books, but I a few I could not resist.  One was Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins.  I originally walked away from it, but the cover with the scalpels and the anatomy diagrams stuck in my head.  I kept wondering what was in the in the potato room, and did people actually make houses with rooms devoted to potatoes.

Something in the Potato Room is a book length poem that has seven different parts.   This book is the winner the 2009 Kore First Book Award.  The thing that strikes me about the book is how it’s different from anything else I’ve seen.  In the narrative of the book there is a speaker who is growing disinterested with her job, but who buys a house with (spoilers!) a skeleton in the potato room.  Cousins does a wonderful job of catching the sense of malaise that an office worker feels,  “Typing. Coping. Balanc-/ ing the museum accounts./ Some days there wasn’t/ much work. I often sat/ at my desk and wished/ my fingernails would/ grow.”  In fact, this passage reaffirms why I cannot stand clerical work.

However, Cousins is also able to capture the surreal and grotesque.   Particularly when the skeleton starts to grow flesh: “Underneath the quilt, a/ red vine was growing./ Slithering.  Crawling up/ his arm…was it the sort of weed/ that needed to be uproot-/ ed dug out, its white/ heart held in my palm?”

Often with poetry there are issues of accessibility either the poems has layers upon layers of meaning, which takes the reader considerable work to get at, or it’s meaning is readily obvious to any reader.  While this is an over simplification, it does seems that poetry is often presented in this either/or fallacy.  Yet Cousins book is both accessible to any one (the plot is easy enough to follow),and has layers upon layers of meaning that rewards the careful and diligent reader.

When I first read the book, I thought that it was about depression, how it alienates you from the world.  As I look at it again, I can’t help but feel it is about the artistic process: how an artist works in solitude, starting with a discovery that they eventually flesh out, until the art goes out into the world. I’m sure the next time I read the book I will find an other level.

While my relationship with Heather Cousins’s poetry has just began, I look forward to reading her books as they come out. Before I go, I wish to leave you with my favorite lines from the book: “Life/ doesn’t stay still, and/ death doesn’t stay still ei-/ther”


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