Little Envelopes of Earth Conditions by Cori A. Winrock is an evocative work of poetry that seems to be caught at the crossroads of two different states of being and two endings, and as such, often feels caught between genres as well. This is not a bad thing; rather, it is a deliberate attempt to outline the discordant (and often bad) feelings of depression and mourning, but without the necessary tight resolution of coming out the other side.
As much as I love this work, I have a hard time with it—perhaps, because 2019 was riddled with loss for me. As poet Ilya Kaminsky notes on the book’s blurb, Winrock’s collection is primarily about grief. It is this sense of mourning which lends the voice in the work its duality, which is one of the reasons why Kaminsky says he loves the poetry; for him, the page is lit up with Winrock’s “ringing grief.” These feelings are meant to twist up the reader in the same way in which the speaker in almost every poem is twisted up. For instance, In “Love Poem in A Time of Ambulances”, Winrock writes that her “mother’s body disbursed / in flame. How a body is burned until gathered, / until it remains—” and then she follows this startling image with “electromagnetic waves” and a “humiliation of sparrows,” only to end with the image of reviving someone. What consolation the ambulances and death could have given are now reinvigorated—and not always for the better.
In other works, her resistance to the endings she provides are haunting with their beauty. I particularly love the way in which she evokes space in “Landscape in which I am Obliterated by Light”; the void of the dark space could be so oblique and isolating, yet it is a call for intimacy in this work when she ends with this line: “Little sleeve, your legs are dragging behind me. / I swear nothing will fit in this spacesuit but us.”
Winrock’s openings also leave me feeling haunted. After each title, there is often an italicized quotation which is meant to guide the poem. While each one of these quotations can later be traced on the back pages of the work, where full credit to the author is given, many of these works resist the easy interpretations. These openings often feel like found poetry, but also like found objects. They are put off, excised, like a butterfly with a pin in its thorax, ready for observation. They are also ornate frames, golden and gilded, meant to guide the eye of the reader towards the centre of the poem. Yet there is no docent or gallery plaque explaining what Winrock has caught, or why she has framed elements in this particular way. There are sparse words and evocative images, but that is it.
This is both good and bad, of course—like grief can be both good and bad. As I read Winrock’s work, I was constantly reminded of my father. He died in 2019. We were not close. But his death haunts me, like her words haunt me, because there is nothing left to do with his memory, like there is no solid form to stand on in much of her work. I suppose this is a testament to her power, the nature and duality of grief being both a reminder of what you have lost and a reminder of what you loved.
At times, I was moved deeply by the images in her work that provoke the same feeling, such as the ending for “Landscape in which I am Obliterated by Light.” At other times, however, I grew frustrated. Many of her images repeat themselves—ambulances, sewing machines, bees, and astronauts—but so many of them seem to evade any standard form of meaning. I’d reach the end of one poem and not understand, move on only to find the same—or similar—use of an astronaut, now contrasted with a wedding dress. I would go back to see if it was connected, and it could have been. I was telling a story about how they were connected, about how the life of a female scientist is caught between the domestic sphere and the public sphere, only made even more heart-wrenching and lonely when the public sphere is that of space. So the death of one life still feels like the death of another, especially since space is quite lonely in her work.
I am interpreting her work through my own lens, which of course illuminates something about me. I am okay with understanding poetry in that manner, where each poem is personal, each reading changes it, and it can continue to change as the reader changes. It is one of the many reasons why I teach poetry to all my first years, regardless of their academic discipline or major. They need to see the oscillating ways in which our own experience colours our worldview. I love reading in this manner. Yet Winrock’s images repeat so much that I worried that I was missing something integral to understanding her world in particular. Was there a clear connection she was making? Was I missing it? And if I was missing it, did that mean all that I was feeling about my father’s death, that lay latent in the background of my own reading process, was merely my own ghostly projection?
I know, deep down, that this is the point, especially because this work is so ostensibly about grief. As Joan Didion portrays so fluidly in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, grief corrodes our minds, creating meaning out of the smallest events in order to exert some sort of control. For Didion, she replays the night her husband died over and over, thinking she can somehow change it. We all know this story without knowing it. We keep the ring or watch; we keep the phone message; we keep the last outfit of the deceased in a lockbox, and convince ourselves that each time we see bees dancing, it is a connection to the eternal land of milk and honey, an afterlife we cannot see but know is there. It felt deeply personal to me that Winrock kept repeating the images of bees because, in the wake of my father’s death in the beginning of June, all I saw were bees. I then tattooed bees on my shoulders. I wanted them with me, I said to those who asked, because they reminded me of the cultural myth of the promised land—but maybe I just wanted to keep my own magical thinking alive that much longer, since when the body is gone, especially the body of someone we never really had in the first place, all we have is the magic of thought.
Winrock’s work is all magic thought, all smoke and mirrors, but I still do not know if it was an illusion or there was something more she needed me to see and that I failed to. She creates a world where everything repeats, everything has meaning, yet she doesn’t supply it for us because that would be doing the grieving for us, and that is a job only we can do. I learned that last summer, only to have it repeated to me this last winter through her poetry collection. So perhaps, I am sick of learning. I am sick of poetry. I am sick like her main characters in her poetry seem to be sick, and desperately need that ambulance to carry me “Forward to my childhood” like the narrator says in “When Her Hands are Stolen Through a Left-Open Window.”
Winrock seems to be suggesting that we all have to grieve alone, too, especially in the silence of space, where our feelings seem to be nothing but gravity. We also must stop inhabiting this region at some point in order to wrap up the earth into envelopes, and send it back home. We must, eventually, just stop crying. We have to move on. Winrock is very aware of this last step in her work—though it may not seem like it on the surface. She even calls herself a “sad sack” in one poem, a line that—I admit—did make me laugh out loud. I was getting sick of being sad when I read this work. Not just her sadness, but my own. Because if it wasn’t my father’s death I was grieving, it was my husband’s childhood friends. It was his grandfather. It was someone else, and then someone else, because death is pervasive like space. My 2019 was all about bees and floorboards and space, that endless void of space. I was getting sick of being a sad sack myself.
So perhaps at times I am harsher on Winrock than I have any right to be, precisely because she is so skilled at delivering grief to the reader. I resented it at times. I just wanted to move on, so her constant oscillating between the wedding dress and the space suit, the happy ending and the tragic one, became frustrating. I had to read this collection over several days, and then, take several more days to write this. But as much as Winrock revels in being sad, she eventually concludes her work. It does not feel like a substantive ending, but it is over. And I was so relieved when it was done, I nearly didn’t want to look at this collection ever again.
Do not get me wrong, I loved this collection. Her words are ghostly in all the good ways, too. Her prose never gets too meandering, too turgid, or even densely referential. It’s ethereal, light, and crisp. At times she left me speechless with how she was able to evoke certain images, like an ambulance’s bone structure, but at other times, her poetry left me wanting more. More closure, sure, but also more lines. Just more.
My need for more of Winrock shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a criticism, either. She’s good, don’t get me wrong. Very good. Clear and concise with her word choices—this alone marks her as a pro in poetry—but she is often opaque with meaning. Just a few more lines, a bit more clarity, would have gone a long way for me—but I think this work is meant to represent a fracture more than a solution; a fork in the road more than a conclusion.
The only true criticism that I have is her lack of clarity in genres. I only point this out because, at times, this collection seemed to resist the speculative fiction marketplace entirely, and only use ghosts and myths and especially space as metaphors and nothing but. Of course, I love genre and genre poetry, and I’m biased there, and I realize and understand that not every work needs categorization in order to be valued. I really do get that. But I am not entirely sure if Winrock resists genre in some of her work because grief is something that expands beyond genres, or if she resists genre because she can’t be considered a “serious” poet within the genre of speculative poetry. If it’s the latter, that really sucks. I hope it’s not the latter, but at times I fear it was since so many of the quotations at the beginning of her poems are from more traditional forms of literary canon (Plath being a major influence) or real-life reports from space. Again, this is not necessarily bad or wrong—I enjoyed her found materials; she has a keen eye for selecting just the right phrase as a frame—but yet again, I worried that she didn’t select from more speculative works because of the stigma associated with them. Winrock is a serious poet. She should be taken seriously, regardless of genre or influence. But I do understand the ways in which genre can muddy something, and if the intent is to remain muddy, then well, she did a great job.
Ultimately, though, what I truly wish to praise Winrock for is how she portrays science. Not just science fiction or some imagined speculative future, but the raw figures of science itself. I have mentioned before that I often teach poetry to my first years; over the past couple years, I have seen more and more science majors in my classes, and I have been tasked to teach science communication to students who will never see another English Course or an English Prof ever again. So when I show them poetry, especially by the chemist Primo Levi, and I insist that science can be rendered into beautiful prose, they don’t always believe me. They might see Levi as the exception that proves the rule, that science is science and art is art and never the two shall mix.
In Winrock’s work, however, she combines science and poetry, and she does this with spectacular clarity. She is not science fiction, but science fact. Her words about x-rays give me shivers, along with the electromagnetic waves she conjures. I am pretty sure I underlined and starred every single poem that mentioned ambulances and IVs. The quotidian life of medical science comes alive in her work, and it is also extended beyond that into the black void of space and exploration. Those NASA announcements which start some poems aside, she made physics sound beautiful; she rendered math equations into prosody. In short, she took what I have been telling my science students for years now and made it into a reality that only Primo Levi could challenge.
Little Envelopes of Earth Conditions by Cori Winrock is a collection about grief, where the void of space can so easily stand in as a metaphor of that feeling of loss—but I also resist that purely metaphorical reading, in favour of my science students, who need to see their own daily lives of equations and inventions rendered in beautiful prose. I think the next time I have a classroom full of bright-eyed scientists, I will show them Winrock’s work. I might even mention my father, too, whose death came to me as a lab report, a forgotten file in a social worker’s drawer, someone lost among a different kind of space.
And then maybe we will all get some type of closure.
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