Embers: A Novel in Poems

Embers: A Novel in Poems by Terry Wolverton

Annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

As a genre jumper from fiction to creative non-fiction, I had hardly planned to add poetry to my repertoire as a third genre.  So, when I saw that Terry Wolverton’s novel, Embers, was written in poems, I didn’t expect it to be accessible to a complete poetry neophyte like me.  However, I felt compelled to read this book and I am so glad that I did.  Embers is beyond accessible—it mesmerizes and transfixes; it is a genre-bending work which is true hybrid of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.

The skeleton of Embers consists of Wolverton’s family history (detailed in an extremely helpful timeline) beginning near the turn of early 20th century, with the birth of Marie Girard, and ending almost 100 years later.  Each poem represents a significant event in the life of the character depicted, a vignette fully brought to life through the perfect storm of imagery, insight and emotion.   The book’s structure divides the poems into two “books” of roughly a half-century each, preceded by a prologue containing a flash forward of Marie, one of the book’s main characters, from beyond the grave, as well as a flash back, to the Native American tribe who resided on the family’s land previously.

As Wolverton has explained, she took the basic facts as she knew them and fleshed them out by envisioning the specific scenes which she depicts with such vivid imagery.  In the excerpt below, the story of the bartender, Michael McCarthy, the surrogate father for Marie’s child, is told in second person.  I have highlighted a few of the especially vivid words:

…The nickelodeon
trills a lullaby.  Now your dreams
are glass, tumblers and goblets,
punch cups and schooners, glinting
in continual twilight, and each
must be filled.  Ambers and oranges,
absinthe and burgundy.  You spend your hours
pouring color, watching it drain away (21). [bold type added]

The words highlighted in bold show some of the unusual and vibrant imagery that Wolverton used to create the dramatic effect, rather than saying, “he was a bartender.”

Although Embers contains many extraordinary “events,” some of the most memorable scenes contained small but unforgettable detail which breathe life into the moment.  For example, when Marie Girard approaches the monsignor to request an annulment, Wolverton writes:

Adolph had no use for priests
so she went alone to the cathedral to petition
the monsignor.  Fingering

one fraying strap of her thin pocketbook, she stood before
the straight spined priest and fixed her
gaze on the gray veins that branched
the marble floor (26).

The image of the woman “fingering one fraying strap of her thin pocketbook” and then fixing “her gaze on the gray veins of the floor” made the scene so real and so memorable to me, that I emotionally connected to this very tormented character.  Even though the events surrounding this character’s life were quite dramatic, these small details made me feel not only that I knew her, but that I was her.

Deftly, Wolverton skates between scenes in first, second and third tense, and even creates interior revelations of minor supporting characters with free indirect style.  Every poem has its own style and structure, befitting its significance:  past tense, present tense, left-justified, centered, single-spaced, double-spaced, a scene, a letter.  The variety isn’t gratuitous or jarring, but instead is subtle and appropriate to the message.  The word choices exhibit an exactitude  rarely seen—I could make a list of the verbs I loved:  scuffs, clotted, steeped, preens, scuttles, silvers, blitzing.

I have had not only the great fortune to read Embers, but to also have Wolverton for my mentor during one of my project periods and have had benefit of her insights into the creation of this novel:   the intricate weaving of fact and imagination into a living, breathing piece of art.  In fact, the written work has been the basis for a brilliantly performed live jazz opera.  As I go forward with a family history of my own, I will often refer to Wolverton’s example in Embers as an excellent example of mind-bending, genre-bending creativity.

One response to “Embers: A Novel in Poems

  1. Marianne, Thank you for your careful reading and your kind words. I look forward to the completion of your own family history project!

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