Camelia Elias, Pulverizing Portraits: Lynn Emanuel’s Poetry of Becoming (EyeCorner Press, 2010)
I’ve always felt a kind of connection with Lynn Emanuel’s work; I discovered the magic of poetry during my high school years in Pittsburgh at the same time I was also discovering the magic of DIY culture thanks to hanging out with the hardcore kids. So the concept of “local” already meant something special to me, and I had some vague notion of the concept that smaller is better (I would go see a show at Civic Arena one night, and then head over to City Limits, the infamous skate club that held metal and punk shows, the next night). So when I stumbled upon a Pittsburgh poet (ironically, it wasn’t until I was in college in Virginia that I discovered Emanuel’s work) thanks to a chapbook published by a press small enough that when I special-ordered it, the owner of my college bookstore actually came out of her office and yelled at me, I figured I was onto something big. I was right. That was over a quarter-century ago, and I’ve been devouring Emanuel’s work ever since. Now, finally, someone has produced a full-length critical essay on Emanuel, the first extant (that I know of). How could I possibly resist?
From the perspective of being a critical work, there’s not a great deal to say about the book. Camelia Elias is no Nancy Ann Watanabe, that’s for sure (but then, few writers are), but given the ridiculous amount of literary criticism I’ve run across over the years that required me to carry two dictionaries and a concordance every time I wanted to read it, she’s no A. J. Greimas, either. Pulverizing Portraits is a readable book that capably makes its points regarding Emanuel’s themes and use of language (though in reference to the above paragraph, I wonder if a critic from Pittsburgh would have found more depth in some pieces than one from Denmark; not a strike against Elias by any means, but something that kept coming into the back of my head as I read), but at no point does it ever become more than that.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing, as that already puts it head and shoulders over 80% of the literary criticism being pumped out of the world’s universities, but there’s still a lack of that certain ineffable readability/connection/communicable passion/whatever you want to poke at with your particular stick that leaves the book kind of adrift; it’s too accessible for academia but not accessible enough for the mass market. Not that that was probably a consideration given that Emanuel herself has never been a tenth as popular as she deserves to be. Maybe, in some corner of the back of my mind, that’s what I was looking for when I picked this book up—something I could shove in people’s faces at the auto body shop where I read about fifty pages of it while waiting for my car to get fixed and saying “this is why you should be reading Lynn Emanuel! This, what Camelia Elias is saying right here!” And I can’t fault Camelia Elias for not delivering a book she had no idea anyone wanted. Still, though, in a world that is populated by more and more books of lit crit that fewer and fewer people are reading, it seems to me that the author of same should be wanting to find some sort of angle that distinguishes her book from the ten thousand theses that are probably being defended at universities around the world as I write these words. I didn’t find it here. Not to say I don’t recommend this book; if you are already familiar with the work of Lynn Emanuel, then you will find some things to like very much here. If you’re not, this is not your entry point; the work of Lynn Emanuel will still serve you better. (And if you’re not, you should be, she’s wonderful.) ** ½