Even Before My Own Name by Tracy Koretsky

raggedbottom press, 2009
Though I visited New York several times in the last few years, I never took the ferry out to Liberty Island; the journey always seemed redundant.  Ellis Island is long since a defunct point of entry for the huddled masses yearning to be free-immigration in 2010 conjures images of heavily armed federal agents scouring lines of traffic in punishing midday heat with drug dogs at their sides.  Whatever hope the Statue of Liberty inspired to millions now seems like an abandoned ad campaign.  And though one can see the statue from Manhattan, looking in its direction feels like holding America's history at arm's length-happy to be here, though some would rather forget how we arrived.

It was with this preconception that I read For Emily, On The Staten Island Ferry, from Tracy Korestky's new collection, Even Before My Own Name.  The poem is a short piece about two lovers as they travel across the Hudson to get a closer look at Lady Liberty:

before we boarded this boat
to get a glimpse of Liberty
a woman whose height
needs bracing on the inside
who covers her metal with soft green
I saw her arms, muscled like a man's
twice in the mirror of your shades
before I saw us
there, lapping at her feet
two silver bubbles locked upon a wave
waiting for the next wind

Korestky uses the Statue of Liberty to specifically not tell the story of a shipload of immigrants arriving under the shadow of a national promise.  Instead, the poem tells of two lovers riding toward a statue that once inspired hope to thousands and now inspires a sense of dread to those who are locked on a wave under her copper gaze.  One wants to call it fear of the undertow of love; of wanting to speak but fearing that the meaning of one's words will surely be lost in the waves and fog. 

It is rare that a poet can evoke the imminent sensation of movement with an equally palpable emotional thrust.  For Emily is one of the more accessible poems in Even Before My Own Name, a collection so expansive in tone and form that it is difficult to put one's finger on the direct impetus behind Korestky's vision.  For Emily reaches into the historical movement of America rendered still by modern dread.  Yet many of the poems in Even Before My Own Name evoke small-town fears of dwindling employment and gambling fathers, such as in poems like 5-Ben and Solitaire.  Yet equally palpable is the glare of middle-American wonder, as Koretsky's speaker dreams of digging her toes into foreign soil in Wanting Land.  There is as much resignation as there is unyielding hope in these poems, and it is this sense of interminable longing that Koretsky conveys so well in so many poems in the collection. 

The work that truly stands out is that which takes risks with form in order to form an emotional connection.  In several poems in the collection, Korestky lets the title act as the first line, such as in Once, in Soho, or I guess he's dead now.  Some experiments are less effective; several of the prose poems, notably fade to white, come off as too insular to really resonate with the reader.  Part of this is that the content is often too specific and heavy for the poems. Fade to white tells of the deaths of two children in a tobogganing accident, and gives weighty details in blunt sentences such that one almost feels uncomfortable reacting in any way to the poem itself.  It's near impossible to write a poem about a child dying without verging on the exploitative; perhaps one shouldn't be surprised then that some of the weakest poems in Even Before My Own Name take on subjects that are too esoteric and emotionally cumbersome.  I think the best pieces in the collection are those that harness an emotion and allow the poem to develop in its own time.  Indeed, it is Koretsky's strength in implication and silence in place of expression that makes Even Before My Own Name at once a powerful and emotionally arresting collection.

MICHAEL RAVENSCROFT was born in Canada, grew up in Michigan, and is currently writing, working and living in Washington DC.