what she holds
by d. ellis phelps
ISBN: 9798672793627
Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, September 7, 2020

122 pages, $12.00

What can we see in a memoir written in poetry? What defines true poetry? The answers to these questions are the core points of d. ellis phelps’s second book, what she holds. This is not the first time someone is writing her memoir in a genre other than in the usual prose. I know of Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, published in 2006. Hahn’s work is a volume of zuihitsu, hybrid, including tanka. However, in what she holds, it is purely poetry. In the pages of the poetry, we see the poem, “alchemical fire,” of absence, the poem of no words but the voice is hiding under the blank space, announcing what will follow. Surely, the poem, “uninvited,” does that with its first part/section. Very nuclear, extended, and broken:


born   my breath
born   my body

into this:

she left you
in your crib

you know
when you were two

she went down the road
to see………….that man

The sounds and patterns of the poems that form after aptly scanned and decoding the whole work, the reader is encouraged by the environment to discover many different levels surfacing as new faces. The lines are short and varied in practice. And before these, as an unusual book of poetry collection in its own right/kind, reactions of its reading will vary. Will the reader approach it in haikuesque or tankaesque? Why the continuous themes of suffering and pain? Is it realistic or covertly making comments on various social, cultural, religious and/or political bullies and all the other related subjects and themes? Is the character a stoical person? In the last part/section of the poem “after the roses” in parallelism, we see:

(………….i cannot
say it………………)
it………..is not happening
now……..my body
not knowing
the difference

Again and again, the book is redefining the collection of the poems, from one poem to another poem: freshness, testing imagery, a consistent voice, uniform quality throughout the whole pages of the book, from opener to the concluding part, economy of perception, cohesion, identifiable narrative thread, and conclusion that resonates far beyond the impact of the individual lines. However, the constant reader will go far beyond all these for the raw materials. Interestingly and inherently, the different materials of pain and joy have meshed successfully.

The reader is not invited to act as interpreter on a character dealing with her stranger father; however, the reader acts as a preservative. This is an act of kindness. Think about how the skills of incongruity are used to achieve a balance between facts and creation, time and space. We cannot leave these behind. In poetry we think of art, and in art we think of imagination. Imagination remains supreme, when we write our conflict, we open the storehouse door into the room where it is primarily a relationship of conflict; we write with the whole self: the ears, the eyes, the hands and the body, the nose, and tongue; we write the space we inhabit: the nest, the ambiguity, the spirit of the place, a new angle of vision, the voice of the place; we write the irony, the paradox, the satire; we write the tension and the energy, cutting everything to the bones. These are raw materials and are revealed to the reader at the same time as the character in what she holds. It ends well with the last part/section of the poem, “the shaman said”:

to this day

the scent

of sweet


takes me

to you

& here
you are


telling me
who you were

nanih waiya
nanih waiya


The subject of suffering, pain, forgiving, and joy that match with the rhythm, jumping up as children do allows the reader to mine between words; and the more readings the reader does, the more meanings they have to discover. Full of flashes, and every reading comes with its flash. The character does not follow a tread set by the confessional poets like Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, or as a purveyor of exhibitionism yet self-effacing in her public persona. However, she is in between and seems to claim that there is nothing behind the surface of every step she takes.

Poets are temptatious, and like slam poets, identity and performativity are also the critical look of the short lines of the whole poems of the book. We make distinctions between our “real” and “staged” selves. But the artistic self-stagings involving drag and imitation make it very difficult to see the lines between this “real” and that “staged.” The poet of what she holds must be right to use close to see and sing/perform the exercises of visualizing ideas, thoughts, and sensations. The whole work is a mint, where thoughts and feelings are coined. Poetry must be partly feeling and partly thoughtful. This is exactly what she holds is about. A simple, beautiful piece of art.


Jacob Kobina Ayiah Mensah, who is an algebraist and artist, works in mixed media. His poetry, songs, prose, art, and hybrid have appeared in numerous journals. He lives in the southern part of Ghana, in Spain, and in the Turtle Mountains, North Dakota.
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