» Book Review
Review: Marble Orchard by Emily Corwin
University of Akron Press, May 2023
Emily Corwin’s third full-length book of poetry, Marble Orchard, subverts expectations of how we talk about anxiety and depression. This graveyard is divided into four sections that tackle mental health issues and physical ailments: “delicate as organ,” “my black sleigh,” “the wicked accident,” and “a field walks through me.” Each of these corresponds to a different framing style: a formal presentation of “lunacy,” ekphrasis of film, a collage of voices overheard, and the ekphrasis of paintings.
Though ekphrasis, the use of art as a framing device, is often used as a tool of distance, in Corwin’s latest collection, pieces feel personal and universal. One notable piece, “Kat Harvey,” named after the protagonist of the 1995 Casper movie, is a portrait of the namesake character:
to go. Dusty star anise, eyebright, the rosarian says,
good morning. And you, what were you like as a living thing?
I’d like to make contact. Can you hurt me? Can I hurt you?
Slither with me to the Lazarus machine, primordial muck.
I’d like to see you not see-through. Can I keep you? Earthy as a
cabbage rose—my woody perennial, my mortal slow dancer.
Corwin uses “Kat Harvey” and Casper to consider the separation of the mind and the body, and resurrection after a physical and even metaphysical death. The poem uses the movie to craft a painting of herbal medicines such as “dusty star anise,” that suggest healing properties. Death is only addressed with a rhetorical question: “What were you like as a living thing?” The biblical reference to Lazarus, the name of the machine designed to bring Casper back to life, arises again as “a/ cabbage rose—my woody perennial.” Here the reader may note “perennial” is a type of plant that comes back to life every spring and could signify the cyclical nature of mental health struggles.
The opening section of the collection, “delicate as organ,” begins with a bang and contains some of the most compelling pieces in the collection. Its first poem, “Lunatic as Abecedarian,” sets us up thematically for the rest of the book. The speaker of these pieces, “lived against it – a/ brutal music; I lived in it in/ clinics, in dresses disposable.” This section examines “lunacy” and “lunatic” by employing a myriad of forms that challenge us to reframe our relationship with these words.
Corwin is at her best when she deconstructs and rebuilds the world around her. In one of her “Lunatic as Erasure” pieces, readers see an “erasure of Fluoxetine medication guide” that takes medical packaging to create a portrait of what it is like being on an antidepressant.
“there may be change in mood, behavior,
actions, thoughts, or feelings, especially severe.
acting on dangerous impulses”
Corwin captures the possible contradiction of antidepressants, stabilizing mental health—while potentially delivering terrible side effects. She notes, “if you take too much, call poison control,” highlights the fiction between pill as “medicine” and hazard.
The “wicked accident”, which consists of a multi-page poem constructed out of conversations overheard in public spaces, was another high point in the collection. Whether Corwin’s intention or not, this piece evoked the motif of “voices in your head” that is often associated with lunatics, a thread established at the beginning of the book. “I wasn’t there when it happened. You see where the crack started.” Corwin’s disembodied voice chimes two-thirds of the way through the piece. This brilliant landscape skips to a Betty White reference and the meme of the actress being older than sliced bread: “That was the old Wonder Bread Factory. We used to drive the turnpike/ to visit Betty.” Corwin subverts expectations, offering us a voice that is reflective, witty, sarcastic, and left me wanting to “cross my fingers,/ I mean, cross my heart.”
Corwin’s Marble Orchard delicately balances themes of mental illness with art and found poetry. Though its first section ran slightly long in its dissection of lunacy, Corwin’s meditation on mental illness offers a strong collection that will likely resonate with many readers.