Book Review Archives

The Sad Epistles

By: Emma Bolden
Reviewed by: Alan May
Dancing Girl Press, 2009
$7, Paperback

Often in love poems (or poems about unrequited love), we see the love relationship stand as metaphor for something more complex and, perhaps, profound. During my first reading of Emma Bolden’s The Sad Epistles, I was slightly worried that Bolden’s poems weren’t working hard enough, that the honest-to-god ache she relays, akin to the ache we often hear/feel in pop songs, wouldn’t be enough to carry me through the chapbook again and again. However, with subsequent readings, I fell more deeply in love with the poems and their earnestness, humor, and terror.

Bolden’s verbal and linguistic pyrotechnics are hard to resist (see lines in “Epistle III. An Answer to the Question Why Are You Shaking”: “I’m flayed, a waiting. / Lift liver, sift spleen. Find the small beak of a bird beating to make alarm / known…”), but her formal ingenuity is what makes these poems new and exciting. This is best seen, perhaps, in “Epistle II. Why I Will Why You Wouldn’t.” In the beginning of the poem, we can see how A + B = C when the speaker says, “1. I am a well-trained pet well-heeled. / 2. You’ve eaten your own leash.”

What I like best, however, happens later, when the lines, especially those referring to the former lover, become more ambiguous and rangy: 
        1. An old woman’s garden, peaches lost in their rot. 
        2. The hallway’s unlighting, windows hung ghosts. 

        1. Taken. 
        2. Given. 

        1. The song of a dog’s leg 
                silenced by buckshot. 
        2. The song of carrion crying for help 
                to be prey.

We see the same inventiveness at work in Bolden’s poem “Epistle VIII. Attempting to Determine the Effect of Absence by Number” in her lines: 
        1. Assume distance and proximity different. 
            Assume distance as X and proximity Y. 
            Assume correlation or relation. 

        2. Assume I run to you. 
            My feet trail diamonds. 

        3. Assume you run from me. 
            Larks divide from their wings. 

        4. These fingers contain an even number of nails. 
            How many red sketches canvas your back? 


        5. In the morning there are mornings multiplied in one 
                morning. 
            Your thighs tied in a green towel 
            divided by your thighs tied 
            in a green towel.


In “Epistle VIII….” we also see other characteristics that pervade in The Sad Epistles: sensuousness and explicit sexuality, which help to further portray the speaker’s longing.

Because of Bolden’s authority and her perfect pitch, we accept the more complex outcomes of her invented forms and are drawn towards what Keats might refer to (think negative capability) as “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts.” In The Sad Epistles, Emma Bolden takes subject matter that is well-worn and makes it new; we feel the speaker’s ache in every line and are thrilled by the poet’s innovation in this lively little book. Nov 2009

Alan May lives in Knoxville, Tenn., where he edits APOCRYPHALTEXT.