Smile Politely

Emily F. Kerlin unearths familiar ground in Twenty-One Farewells

A white woman with blonde hair in a blue shirt smiles at the camera.
Photo: Della Perrone

A member of Champaign-Urbana’s Glass Room Poets, Emily F. Kerlin won Minerva Rising Press’s 2023 “Dare to Be” chapbook contest with her collection of poems, Twenty-One Farewells. The twenty-one poems in this new collection were the focus of her reading and book launch last Saturday (April 20th) at The Lit in downtown Champaign.

For those less familiar with chapbooks, they’re more than just a short collection of poems. Chapbooks were smaller, less expensive bound pamphlets and street literature which became popular in 16th and 17th-century Europe. Look, I’m an Early Modern lit nerd so give me this moment to bask in one of the cool creative innovations from the period. Chapbooks were typically sold by street peddlers known as “chapmen.” They were easy-to-carry collections of poems, stories, essays or polemical writings. As such, they were meant to be read, used, written in, toted around and pondered. They were meant to be shared. 

Kerlin has beautifully engaged with the tradition of the chapbook by composing twenty-one compelling poems that grapple with grief, celebrate joy, and flow with grace across the small space of just over thirty pages. You’ll want to carry the collection with you, share it with friends, and return to it throughout the day. 

Several people are seated in a well-lit room with windows. They are facing a white woman who is holding a bag.
The Literary; Photo by Amy Penne

Fellow Glass Room poet Elizabeth Majerus, author of Songs are Like Tattoos, introduced Kerlin at the well-attended book launch on Saturday. Marjerus noted “We’ve been together as Glass Room poets for about eight years now. Emily is a kind-hearted and wise person and such a gifted reader of poetry. Her poems are searching and subtle. They reveal the stunning beauty of being alive.”

Kerlin opened Saturday’s reading and her collection with a stunning work entitled “Fourth of July.” The poem is activated by an engaging opening couplet: “This time we’re close enough/ to taste the acrid, eggy smoke.” That familiar scent which permeates the atmosphere during any fireworks display is felt in the throat. The rest of the poem takes the reader through questions, large and small, including why firecrackers and satellites don’t collide in midair. It’s a visceral opening for the chapbook. 

The whole collection abides between vulnerability and strength. Kerlin’s speakers seem to be used to farewells. Loved ones come and go – but moments linger in the lines and in between the lines. 

One of my favorite poems in the collection is “The Wind Across the Ocean.” Kerlin’s adept use of concrete nouns pushes the momentum in the poem. 

think of your first time

on Rodeo Drive

hunting for cheap Docs,

a Telecaster

some bootleg Pixies,

stonewashed Levis

I’m a sucker for a strong use of nouns that do the heavy lifting of tone and setting. Later, in “House Fire,” Kerlin does a masterful job of setting the scene with the haunting opening lines, “The Dominican sisters,/ having finished vespers, are quiet;/ the convent dark.” Later the speaker offers the disquieting image of the speaker’s father: “I don’t remember the fire trucks,/ only the wait. Watching my father/ run back in for his guitar.” Kerlin’s speaker straddles the space between objective reporter and devastated daughter.

One minute later,

memory’s scroll commences

with the smell of smoke

and panic as he burst into our room

to yank us from our beds,

to shove our arms into coat sleeves.

A white woman in a black sweater stands in front of shelves of books.
Emily F. Kerlin at the Literary; Photo by Amy Penne

Emily Patterson served as Minerva Rising’s judge for the “Dare to Be” chapbook contest and offered Kerlin’s collection as “a meditation on loss in its many forms: loss of earlier selves, of childhood innocence; loss in nature, in the death of animals both wild and domestic; loss of trust, home, expectation, connection.” 

Our beloved Boneyard Creek serves as the focal point of Kerlin’s “Imagined Mercy.” 

behind the old train station

there’s a path to a small creek

       where a person might find a broken flip-flop or an empty fifth

Kerlin’s Twenty-One Farewells is an exemplary chapbook. A collection I’ve been carrying around in my bag for the last few weeks. I’ve written notes in the margins, using it as a prompt for dialogue with my own memories of family. It’s what a chapbook should be – space for the imagination to wander and question.

Arts Editor at Smile Politely

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