New Life in the Midst of Necessary Decomposition: Review of Elizabeth Schmuhl's Premonitions
Reviewed: Premonitions by Elizabeth Schmuhl (Wayne State University Press, 2018), reviewed by David Nilsen
"In the cherry orchard I offer myself to the Earth.
She takes me.
Slowly, I arrive."
In Premonitions, Elizabeth Schmuhl not only arrives, but sojourns, seeking to become a physical fact of her own environment, and in turn to translate that environment for us in language both sparse and sumptuous. As she sinks into the isolation of a rural property far from human contact, her language assumes the frayed hemlines and feral tones of her setting. It is lush but lean, whimsical but unsentimental.
Premonitions meanders through all four seasons, but spring is at its heart, with its vernal probing and multiplying of new life in the midst of necessary decomposition. This isn’t Millay’s spring “babbling and strewing flowers,” but rather the annual layering of new patterns of survival atop the previous year’s decaying failed attempts, cells dividing and scavenging life from those that lost it, green and black and blue, cutthroat and beautiful. In this ecosystem, Schmuhl positions herself as predator and prey, scavenger and carrion.
“The tiger lilies’ throats look so beautiful in the heat of noon. I
want to slice them open. I want to chew them hungrily.”
These lines lead off “#64”, though it feels a disservice to merely list the numbered titles of these poems, as each title is stamped upon a unique smudge of color. These numbers and colors hold deeper sensual meaning within Schmuhl’s synaesthetic processing, representing impressions drawn out in the resulting poems. “#64” is housed in a circle of color somewhere between carrot and faded blood on cotton.
In the poem just before this, “#61,” Schmuhl is on the other end of the food chain:
“I cut my heart open. It’s certain:
the meat of a halved dove still beating and bloody.
I’ll leave her out as an offering.
And then I’ll watch, and wait.”
It’s not all grim and gristle though. There are moments of airy light, of gentleness. In “#112”, Schmuhl sits by a nearby river at midnight. The imagery early on is familiar in its loamy lack of sentimentality:
“I know where the tadpoles live. My hair dips into the water when
I reach my hand in. I scoop up some dark matter. Several small
bodies are wiggling.”
The poem concludes though with this gorgeous moment:
“I lower myself into the river, open my eyes.
Here the moonlight is an echo. Here the moonlight is the loveliest.”
There is a childlike quality to the way Schmuhl interacts with nature, hands dirty and clothes soiled, but it’s a childlikeness that embraces all of childhood. Those who remember childhood as a time of idyllic innocence lived a charmed or sheltered youth, or aren’t remembering clearly. Childhood holds loneliness, feralness, cruelty, blood. Our first observation of death. Our first awareness of fear.
Schmuhl often sets up idyllic expectations with her innocent set-dressing, but then skewers those expectations with a darker reality framed within. In these lines from “#24”, she flits back and forth between the two: “The snow is beautiful and I want to die. Who could / refuse this softness?”
In a similar way, she often employs very literal, objective language that belies a deeper awareness of herself or her world. One very simple example comes in “#17”, which begins:
“I’m in a white dress. It’s dirty.
I go for walks in the peach orchard and pretend the trees are my friends.
The pretending doesn’t seem like pretending.”
Often she seems merely to be a camera lens translating exactly what she sees, but the mood and tone of Premonitions as a whole allow the reader to lay a filter over these lines, seeing the intersections where the primordial and the poetic meet.
Even in the collection’s intense isolation, there are moments of human connection, though they often serve merely to highlight the poet’s disconnection from those around her. In “#80,” Schmuhl writes to a partner no longer living with her:
“...What can we do
to make sure the young fruit
doesn’t get eaten like last year
by the deer?
Hope, he says.
That won’t be enough.”
In “#127,” one of the book’s most poignant poems in which she seems to directly respond to Millay’s “Spring” mentioned earlier, she writes:
I picked the wild flowers.
They weren’t enough.”
Though much of Premonitions uses a feigned innocence to cut through the pretension of a lot of pastoral poetry, just as often Schmuhl indulges a very adult sensuality in her visions of nature. In “#43” she writes, “I bite into a peach and understand / why you want so violently.”
In “#59,” the entire text of the poem describes the way she sensually interacts with an oncoming storm, her ongoing surrender to nature allowing for an electrically-charged erotic connection to the excitement of the sky.
“I feel the storm coming so I dress for the occasion: a black slip
trimmed with lace. The first time in so long I've felt luxurious.
I light candles and slow dance, sway my hips.
I am following the pleasure of the storm until I'm inside of it.
how turned on I've become.
I am the storm in my front porch and I am moving,
a threat to this home and everything in it.”
Though Schmuhl revels in finding her place among wild things, angst remains, an underlying, whispering despair, an awareness that she can’t just hide away on this rural farm and pretend the rest of her life does not exist. The move to the farm might have been a desire to escape, but there’s a need also to escape that escape and its reminder that something has been escaped from in the first place. In the book’s final poem, she reflects on her role within the natural order, and the fact that as a human she can’t ever perfectly fit within it. There’s peace in the realization, but also deep melancholy:
“...Will the birds
come for what’s left of me and how far from here
will they take me?
Let it be far and let it be soon.”
David Nilsen is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He is a National Book Critics Circle member, and his literary reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, The Millions, The Georgia Review, and numerous other respected publications.