You have yet to hear a voice like Essy Stone’s. It’s a voice that suffers no fools, is serrated, discerning, contrary, and consummate ... a gutting, questioning, exploratory voice with the hiss of backwater ballads, several cups of the blues, an almanac of prayers and hexes, a hint of duende, and the unremitting twang of truths outing themselves as a refrain. In her poems, you witness the opera of everyday expulsions unfold, frequently of women and working class folk. Stone’s poems vividly portray the wild thicket of right here and right now, an America—of immense social and gender inequities (where “always the water belonged to someone”) and Hooters, of televangelists and Fresca, of throats inked with swastikas and “shit we bought off Amazon for cheap,” of endless war and pill mills, superstores and politics on television, casseroles and “the dark wine of chaos”—stretched between the disappearing roads of Tennessee, where “God quotes himself on billboards along I-40,” and the vineyards & golf courses of California. And Stone makes clear there’s a glitch in the dream, that there’s “a shooting/ range by the beach,” that “this land will swallow us if we lie here too long.”
Stone’s poems are both narrative and lyric, but mostly they are transgressive. She says what seemingly can’t or shouldn’t be said, that which is seemingly too crass or too angry or too on-the-nose, and she speaks in a range of tenors—in colloquialism, liturgy, list, query, joke, litany, hashtag, allegation, etc.—which are provocative and do not let us land on easy identifications. Stone’s concerns are epistemological (how do we know what we know) and ontological (how did we become who we are). As the title of her collection, What It Done to Us—winner of Lost Horse Press’s Idaho Poetry Prize—reveals, the cast of characters that show up have been altered by what has been done to them and Stone’s poems are an account of and a reckoning with the experiences that degrade and stain us, most notably via the violences of patriarchy, war, capitalism, the church, and normativity, which cross and intensify one another.
Running thick through these poems are stories of her father, the Father, God and an accompanying cast of angels (one juggling a carving knife) and devils (in the details) making and breaking covenants, so that we come to understand that the realms of home, church, and nation are one realm which has been and still is the dominion of men. The devil, in fact, “hoof-beats” through these poems and the heart of the speaker. The patriarchy is omnipresent and prelapsarian. Stone—“daughter of the bootstrap king with the taste of dust still in [her] mouth”—is so agile with turns of phrase that the bones of the system glow even in her titles, such as Son of a Gun, Stand by your Man, and In a Strip Club Called The Emerald City. In her intimate portrayals, we come face to face with the everyday militarization of our minds and lives, how weaponization comes to roost in our homes and language and relationships, how the genealogy of men runs parallel to the genealogy of war and that there are heartbreaking consequences of that for women: “we mewed/ at his feet, my mama, my baby sister, & I,/ wrapping our long bodies around his legs/ for him to praise us, ignore us, or slam us in doors.” We are in the trenches, and “the voice of the devil may be something we got in common.”
In reading Stone’s poems, I’m reminded of the childhood game, wherein you form a church with your two hands interlaced, say “Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people,” and then flip open your palms to reveal the finger people inside, but what we find inside the doors of these houses/churches/cultures is not so guileless and benevolent, is not anodyne.
These poems are full of maligned, eccentric, brilliant women like Virginia Woolf and Ophelia, but are also occupied by women learning to “facilitate [the] rapture” of someone else, waitresses with “smiles & makeup they can never remove,” “not sure how to please harder but open to suggestion,” “mak[ing] a confection of [themselves],” women afraid to walk to the store” in the dark, “afraid/ in shadows of anything that resembles a man,” “some jock jostl[ing] you” on public transit. Women gather grit and spit, but also learn to quiet and please, “not bravery so much as perfecting your game face” [...] “thirst[ing] for benevolence like water.” The speaker is ever-aware that this is a world where “the girl drowns,” where “a man calls you whore as you cum,” and so the book begins: “1st thing she do is put a knife under the mattress, blade up.”
The range of influences in Stone’s poems is dizzying and impressive and shows a tonic-like disregard for cultural hierarchies and a respect for the wide-ranging manifestations of being human, ranging from Carly Simon, Roseanne Cash, Tammy Wynette, Tracy Chapman, David Bowie to Nabokov’s Lolita, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, the Bible, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Agatha Christie novels, Shakespeare, Austen’s Pride and Predudice, and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from the Hooters employee manual to William Forster Lloyd’s economic theory on the tragedy of the commons.
Amid a lot of sadness and straight talk within Stone’s haunting chronicle of lives, there are also surprising moments of brightness, the edge of something startlingly clear-eyed and beautiful: “the sun under your tongue like a butterscotch,” “the haystring tiara I weave/ for my sister,” “mostly I wandered with honeysuckle on my tongue” ... “I don’t see why we can’t try kindness/ as a diplomatic force.”
Essy Stone received an MFA from the University of Miami, was a 2014-16 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, but spent most of her life as a waitress in East Tennessee. Her poetry has been published in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, and The New Yorker. Stone’s poems will leave you struck smart as they catechize and prosecute: What if you are born into a world where “what [you] want ain’t what [you] know,” where “you feel like you have been defrauded,” where you feel “heartbroken all the time”? Stone’s poems are the thicket and clear the thicket, make way for us to figure out, come judgment: “Who pays. Who pays, & for what, when it’s done.”