In this striking, unforgettable book, d. ellis phelps’ simple form and language create a kaleidoscope of the poet’s memory of growing up as the daughter of an abusive man. Ultimately, by doing the heart-breaking work of sifting through her trauma, phelps hopes to discover healing and peace.
As if peeling back layers of a life lived, phelps employs imagery that returns us to the speaker’s childhood again and again, dredging the depths of a past the speaker has tried but failed to forget. In the book’s first poem, “uninvited,” phelps provides a heart-wrenching glimpse into what it means to ache by merely existing in this world—to be born already needing too much—because parents cannot provide enough love from the start. The “bean vine” metaphor (p. 20) asks us to recall our own nursery rhyme childhoods where Jack climbs the beanstalk to battle desperation and lack. phelps seems to be channeling the idea that children are taught to look forward, toward a future where dreams become reality.
About halfway through the book, the terrifying thing we’ve been expecting to emerge from the shadows happens so quietly we almost miss it (p. 53). phelps masterfully builds suspense and delivers the blow at just the right time, without self-pity or graphic detail, which makes us hungry for more. In “low tones,” the speaker questions how to move forward after unspeakable loss. phelps tenderly handles the subject of violence and death when the speaker asks if she should “try to touch/you—silk/without a loom.” Most of us have not suffered such a loss, but here, phelps summons our sympathy, for we know children, we know families, and we know no child should ever have to witness such a devastation.
In “what the darkness hid,” phelps delivers what may be called an ode to a broken romantic relationship between the speaker and her father. Ties between father and daughter grow more complicated as if the young girl’s mixed feelings about her role in her father’s life—or perhaps more accurately, his role in hers—are a cry to daughters everywhere who seek a father’s love so desperately that the lines between the familiar and romantic become blurred. A father is always a daughter’s first love, even if he has committed horrifying deeds, especially if he has.
“rare flesh” provides an ironic hope in its paradox—this is about being buried and also about being planted, which symbolizes rebirth—finding strength through trauma in a new beginning. But the storm must be acknowledged again, more figuratively this time, if the speaker is to learn to let it go. In “not wandering—jettisoned,” “tornadoes:/ level homes” and “our lives/ twisted/ upturned,” the speaker faces the damage her father caused. Then, “first memory” follows, and we travel with the speaker back to what should have been a simpler time. Instead, the kaleidoscope clicks to colors and patterns we’ve seen before, to the place the speaker’s horrors began. It is as if the poet keeps turning the dial, adjusting, attempting to understand and reconcile her painful childhood.
We are asked to imagine the speaker at age three, innocent, vulnerable, and waiting for love, which creates an eerily poignant effect and highlights the apropos pace of phelps’ collection. Here, the speaker’s ultimate strength surfaces with a definitive voice: she is not going to allow herself to be brutalized any longer. Notably without a question mark and thus, serving as a blatant imperative, the speaker says, “what kind of sentence is this,” referring to her father’s words, “i’ve stayed for you,” and to the metaphor for the speaker’s prison: “how many years/ serving time// enough.” This is a victorious moment for not only the speaker and reader but also the poet, who claims in her “afterword” that “[her poems] have given voice to the dead, and [. . .] given them (my father/myself) permission to rest.”
The reader may feel the father doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but in “before the crushing,” our hearts ache as we see the speaker trying to comprehend what her father was like before he was ruined by his cruelty and violence. “red rag” starts as a patriotic homage to the speaker’s father but becomes a lesson in judgment. The father tells the speaker that when she hits a butterfly, “you’re driving way too fast.” We see the father’s ignorance (his inability to see his own destruction of his daughter, a metaphorical butterfly), which contrasts with the speaker’s innocence (represented by her admission that she “hate[s] to hit a butterfly”). The father has presumably never apologized for the intentional violence he delivered over the years. Nothing he has to say will be trusted. His words come to mean very little after we know what he’s done.
“congested” communicates even further the complicated relationship the speaker has shared with her father and moves us toward closure. “the shaman said” brings us to a more spiritual healing that directly follows the speaker’s admission of night terrors that have tormented her. In this final section, the reader sighs in relief for the speaker and in harmony with her profound catharsis. With the rituals suggested by the shaman, the speaker can embark on a tangible journey that will give her power to let go of all the heaviness she has held for so long. The term “nanih waiya,” a Choctaw Indian term meaning “leaning hill” refers to an ancient, mysterious cave mound in Mississippi, said to have protected the Choctaw. We can surmise that phelps intended to symbolize her personal closure with the image of an ancient, sacred place because even though she forgives her father, his trespasses will forever remain a mystery, closed up, locked, yet haunting the speaker forever.
In what she holds, phelps is not merely writing poems; she is delivering a manual of healing, an opus about how, through seeking courage and peace, a woman can survive.
phelps, d. ellis. what she holds. Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020.