Some Churches by Tasha Cotter (Gold Wake Press 2013)
Reviewed by Emily Corwin
“Hold that bird your heart.” I have been thinking about this line lately, with the cold autumn temperatures, with my coat buttoned all the way up. Hold that bird your heart. An instruction, an incantation. It is about tending to your rawest parts. It is about desire—for people, for air, for safety, for something un-nameable.
The desire in Cotter’s Some Churches is rampant, relentless, affecting. The speaker often addresses this “you,” a figure who seems, at first, to be a romantic other. In the poem “What Persists,” the speaker and the “you” already have this charged relationship: “You’re reading an instruction manual/ describing how to hunt large animals./ You say I’m waiting on the curb/ for a sedative I begged for.” However, as the collection picks up, it becomes clearer that the “you” is the speaker herself. The “you and I” becomes this vulnerable, layered tension, like watching something soft and fleshy remove its shell. In “Tidal,” Cotter makes the collection’s inward nature explicit:
Make it easier, I whisper
to me across from me
and we think on this
in the mauve kitchen (7-10).
But she isn’t easy on herself. She wants to tend to her rawness, but with honesty. “So nothing seems born/ to love you. The world slips into an egg-shaped sort-of-state, and you look into moving to Oregon. Get a job, my love,” the speaker advises the self, both affectionate and exasperated. She speaks with a little tenderness, a little bitterness and self-mockery: “Find out where your desire is coming from/ and re-plant it, you lone animal, acting in every show.”
There’s a pacing back and forth in these poems, evoked often by animals, caged and restless. In “Animal in a Bell Jar”, the speaker “senses something has been locked up and she did the locking.” Cotter plays with captivity and flight, a speaker who longs to be both the animal that escapes and the “cowgirl” that wanted it stay. This speaker has a stubborn streak—she badly wants affection but then refuses it when offered. “A small bird tried to land on her and how she wouldn’t let it,” Cotter writes. Even in the titular poem, she resists connection: “The church said come in, but I didn’t./ Sit down, said the one bench but I couldn’t.”
The speaker tosses and turns, afflicted, contemplating. She works in kitchens, bedrooms, and gardens. She does her chores: “I was trying to take the trash out. I was trying to ignore my email/ and clean the grout and the adjacent porcelain, singing/ in a high-pitched voice, little sounds any fleshy bird could make.” Her hands are always in soil, always digging away or towards desire, like she does in “Opiate Song and Prayer”:
Have you a rake?
My spade, fist, and disaster recovery hands try to mend
this decrepit floral bullshit. I am the new housewife of America (4-6).
Between gorgeous lyric and plain-spokenness, Cotter’s shifts in diction explore this crux: how we want to be happy, to be loved and free, but how we stop just short, how we won’t let ourselves, and can’t explain why. Some Churches ponders this terrain, pacing back and forth, in the backyard, behind a fence. I pace with the poems, impatient and desirous all at once, not knowing what I long for exactly, not knowing when it will come.