Laura Orem on Michele Wolf

Michele Wolf, Immersion.  The Word Works, 2011.

(Note that a selection of poems from Immersion appeared in Innisfree 14:

Michele Wolf's latest collection, Immersion, is an exploration of the definition of family. These graceful poems consider the connections we have with each other through romantic love, adoption, illness, and death, and examine the relationships forged by blood, culture, chance, and choice, with deft and elegant imagery and form.


Immersion begins, appropriately enough, with a love poem, "The Great Tsunami." Not only does it establish the speaker's connection to the East, it begins where family begins, when two people fall in love: "The wave is flooding his heart, / And he is sending the flood / Her way. It rushes / Over her." We revisit this in other poems throughout, including "Late Bloomer" and "Tropical Drink," in which the two lovers "never drifted far, tethered by the length of your arm, / Of mine, by the buoy of our two hands joined. / And we knew we had tasted something sweet."


Immersion then moves on to the story of the adoption of a little girl from China. In the title poem, the speaker describes the melding of two cultures as she learns to speak Chinese with other adoptive parents, then welcomes her daughter in a ceremony at her synagogue. These are, of course, only the outer wrappings of family, as the speaker soon realizes:


            We work on the words. That's why, in the post office just a few weeks

            After we had brought you home, the Asian American clerk,

            In her sixties, spotted you soaking up your new world

            From your stroller, puckered up her face, then gazed again at me

            And, with accented English, clenching my heart in her hands,

            Inquired, "She's yours?" I managed to answer, "Yes. And I'm hers."


            Why couldn't she see I had become Chinese?


Wolf also explores how becoming a parent transforms one's own relationship with one's mother and father. In Wolf's case, this means revisiting her own father's early death in poems like "Pocono Lakeside" and "Why I Became a Journalist," and her mother's grief at the death of her daughter, Wolf's sister, in "The Grieving Room":


            She sits on a stiff chair

            Tucked in a chamber inside her heart

            Where no one can enter.

            The curtains are drawn.

            It is stuffy with a heavy

            Shifting darkness, a room

            Full of shadows. She is

            Wailing, beseeching,

            Quavering, her arms

            Uplifted, fingers splayed,

            Reaching at shadows.


The interconnectedness the speaker feels extends beyond her own family into the larger world. In deeply personal poems such as "Small Talk with an Eight-Year-Old," "Skin," "Cherry Blossom Festival," and "Chinese New Year, USA," and in poems with a wider lens, such as "Attempting to Fly" and "Red Cloud," Wolf emphasizes the correspondence between cultures: we can recognize ourselves everywhere if we only take the time to look.


One of the striking things about this collection is the ordering of the poems. Each poem is carefully placed to illuminate the ones before and after and to keep the narrative moving; the result is a brilliant interlocking of stories and images that is greater than the sum of its parts (which is not to disparage the excellence of those parts). Sometimes collections can feel like just that: just collections of individual pieces. Immersion's careful arrangement creates a larger whole, as beautiful and complicated as a Roman mosaic.

Laura Orem is a poet, essayist, and artist living in Red Lion PA. She holds an MFA from Bennington and teaches writing at Goucher College. She is a featured writer for The Best American Poetry Blog and is a senior editor for Toad Hall Press. Her poetry can be found in many journals, including recently in The Dos Passos Review and OCHO.



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