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The Places We Empty

November 18, 2021

The Places We Empty, by Julie Weiss, is a volume with poems that consider recent events like the 2018 Camp Fire in California, the 2018 separations of parents from children at the border of the U.S. and Mexico, the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the March 2020 conversion of a Madrid ice rink to a morgue for Coronavirus victims, the February 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and the June 2020 lynching of Robert Fuller.

The poems in the volume are divided into three sections with epigraphs. The poems in the first section make us feel things like what it’s like to be a person who “keeps walking, in whatever direction/feels the coldest” after losing everything:

“when her lover’s body/
lies crushed under fallen planks,

when their faithful old hound has vanished,
when all the memories they made together

have been drained of color, have ruptured and lie
under charred wood.”

In the second section, in the poem “My Name Is Alma,” a schoolgirl thinks of her mother and their journey to the border, what she said (“whatever happens out here, she whispered,/you must shut the door on your mind/and keep walking), where she is now, with “hundreds/of bodies caked in dirt, blood, and snot,” and where her mother might be, “a jumble/of piel y huesos, heaped on an identical/concrete floor, reaching for me.”

Even for someone we can’t really understand we can sympathize with the speaker of the poem “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming”:

“I never believed in your
afterlife, your winding staircase scattered with lily petals,

your flossy angel’s wings, even as I lay in my hospital bed,
eyes closed, furrowed body curling into its chrysalis

to await transformation, even as light poured into the container
my soul would soon relinquish. Now, I’d love nothing more

than to spread my wings, supple as a butterfly’s, come to rest
on your shoulder, give you reason to say: I told you so.”

The third section begins with the title poem, which is about spoiling for a fight: “there are so many things I could say right now./The expletives would fly off my words if I opened my mouth,/released them.” The poem’s speaker feels that she

“could fill the sky with flocks of words, startling winged creatures
migrating from south to north, from the place in my stomach

where my anger has been nesting to the place on my face
where they would alight, flapping and squawking, in search of

sustenance. By sustenance I don’t mean worms or fish.
It’s blood I’m after.”

Through a sliding glass door we are shown the object of her anger, standing in “the kitchen where she’s hacking vegetables for salad” and told that “I could give her the duel she desires.” But the poem is about refraining. All these poems keep producing objects for our anger and implicitly asking us not to waste it on emotional outbursts. We must keep in our anger and give it time to turn into words and actions that might make a difference.

In one of the last poems in the third section, “Coronaversary, April 12th, 2020,” the personal becomes political; the realization that “we’re lucky to be alive” is itself a call to action in the world, where so many of us want to leave things better for our children but are instead spending our time wondering “how many more wishes will I puff into the universe/on the backs of dandelion seeds?”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2021 4:57 pm

    This sounds like a powerful collection. The lines you shared are so striking, especially The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming.

    • November 22, 2021 10:04 am

      It is powerful. I particularly like the way the first line of “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming” picks up where the title left off, but didn’t find a way to quote that here.

  2. November 22, 2021 9:54 am

    These poems are at once heartbreaking and evoke anger and disappointment, but the language is striking. I may have to pick up a copy of this one.

    • November 22, 2021 10:07 am

      You’re right, the language is striking; that’s just the right word! I think you’d enjoy this collection in the way a person enjoys seeing some of her own feelings represented in someone else’s words.

  3. GERRY WEISS permalink
    January 28, 2022 1:47 pm

    Beautiful poems. Talented poet. Enjoyed reading same.

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