A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room
by Jennifer Dane Clements
Something in the Potato Room, the book-length poem that won Heather Cousins the Kore Press First Book Award, is an unexpected ars poetica. It is about many things, but ultimately about moments that surprise and redefine us. The constraints that birth new freedoms.
These constraints stripe each page: lines or coffins or boundaries, asking the reader to look beyond. Boredom. Routine. Depression. Sometimes—adulthood. Stillness is a rope, solitude a tether. We enter this book with an unnamed character bound by each of these things, exhausted by the details of her own routine:
“A pot of
paperwhites. A green
mug. A bottle of ibuprofen
and a sheet of Sudafed, the
little red gems sealed in foil.”
It is a dead boy, emerging from the basement earth, that breaks from his own hiding place and ultimately pulls the unnamed character from hers. Sometimes you are the skeleton buried in the basement of a newly purchased home. Sometimes you are the homeowner buried in the minutia of a tedious job and a solitary life. The unexpected makes you feel suddenly “pink/and full of skin.”
Sometimes a poem is a constraint. Sometimes a book. Mutual exclusivity can have that feeling too—the entrapment of either/or. We feel it for the unnamed character, and for Cousins too—for her poem that won’t be tucked in to notions of brevity, for her anthropologist’s eye for charts and medical illustrations and the things they only suggest.
We see the tidy boxes, squares and rectangles of text on the page, holding in what needs to be suppressed.
And we see the things that emerge from constraint. A discovery, an adventure. An excuse not to dress and go to work. A skeleton in the basement of a house. Death reimagined into life—and this doesn’t just mean the skeleton. The book, too, emerges from the brevity and smallness expected from the word poem. The book is a poem, the poem is a book, and the bones of a dead boy swim through layers of basement dirt to the surface to insist these constraints are all imagined.
“It seemed as if it hurt—
Like frozen toes in hot
water. The ache and
shiver of blood breaking
from its sluggish sleep.”
The skeleton is dead, then reborn through imagined story. The unnamed character is alive without playing a part in her own existence. That thing that we expect, that very simple fulfillment of definition, is shut down and broken apart.
doesn’t stay still, and
death doesn’t stay still ei-
And here, still, are the things that can be made whole from the dirt, from the seeming emptiness of an unsatisfying routine. Here is a poem that was made a book, the skeleton made flesh through Cousins’s imagining.
Heather Cousins, Something in the Potato Room, Kore Press, 2009: $12.99.
Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp (forthcoming) and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. jennifer-dane-clements.com.