Personal Narrative in Lynne McEniry’s some other wet landscape and the work of Lucille Clifton and Dorianne Laux

Dylan Thomas defined poetry as “the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an over-clothed blindness to a naked vision.” In her debut poetry collection, some other wet landscape, Lynne McEniry holds a command of narrative and syntax that moves through time and place from “blindness to vision.” Tension builds and releases in the plain-spoken rhythms of the human condition in this collection with minute details of loss, grief, survival, memory, family, love, regret, and childhood trauma: all themes seen through the lens of the female experience. McEniry’s book is written in the tradition of powerhouse women poets like Lucille Clifton and Dorianne Laux, all three poets whose work explore common themes and use threads of personal narrative that lead to insight and discovery. McEniry’s poems exist both as elegy for past life experience and as a celebration of survival.

McEniry meditates on death in poems like “Real Day of the Dead,” “just like that,” “splinter,” “Locust Hill,” and “she comes to me in lilacs.” She asks, “Am I next?” in her “Poem for a Cousin Recently Dead,” which recalls the many deaths of older family members and of a cousin only one year older. In the opening lines of this poem, McEniry reflects on the family deaths that left her “an orphan at 40, the oldest woman left in the bloodline.” This poem lives in the body of the narrator, as she has “fear for my own heart, / trying to keep pumping in this fat body, my lungs working hard / core overtime...” Though riddled with anxiety, this narrator chooses survival, finally seeking refuge in the religious language of childhood. The narrative shifts from morbid self-obsession with mortality to familial abuse in the stanzas that address the dead cousin. In the first three stanzas, McEniry’s narrator meditates on her complicated family inheritance, but the reflection in the final three stanzas bends toward resolve, finally ending with a mantra that completes the transformation to forgiveness:


And I think of the rest of my blood generation—our laundry list

of self-help remedies, anxieties, addictions...what is it with our

bloodline, and what have I set up for my own kids, now grown,

my platelets and plasma floundering around in their vulnerable

veins? And can we all kick this together, maybe propose a new real-

ity show to the networks, some combination of Addicted

and The Biggest Loser—Survivor: Multigenerational Edition? God is the

love in which I forgive you, Cousin; God is the love in which I forgive myself.

God is the love in which I forgive


Though in a much shorter poem, Lucille Clifton grapples with loss and her own mortality in her “poem on my fortieth birthday to my mother who died young.” Hilary Holladay looks at Clifton’s elegiac work as enabling her “to explore the concept of self within contexts that are personal, social, historical, and spiritual.” McEniry interrogates the very “platelets and plasma floundering” in her veins in her search for self in “Poem for a Cousin Recently Dead.” In the following poem, Clifton also searches for self in the context of a family member’s death:


“poem on my fortieth birthday to my mother who died young”

well i have almost come to the place where you fell

tripping over a wire at the forth-fourth lap

and i have decided to keep running,

head up, body attentive, fingers

aimed like darts at first prize, so

i might not even watch out for the thin thing

grabbing towards my ankles but

i’m trying for the long one mama,

running like hell and if i fall

i fall.


This poem inhabits the body of the narrator with lines like “I have decided to keep running” and “head up, body attentive, fingers / aimed like darts at first prize.” Just as McEniry reflects on being the oldest woman of her bloodline, Holladay views the true occasion of Clifton’s poem to be the prospect that the poet is “positioned to outlive her mother chronologically.” Clifton ends this poem with firm resolve: “i’m trying for the long one mama, / running like hell and if I fall / i fall.” Survival, a common theme in Clifton’s work, also runs through McEniry’s collection in poems like “Things I’ve Not Yet Told You” where the dense stream of consciousness of fear and doubt and regret threads through the narrative of Fourth of July fireworks, ending with strong resolve in the lines “I wasn’t scared for a second that it might be a heart attack, because that pounding in my chest broke me wonderfully open to whatever rains down in the remnants.”

Dorianne Laux’s poems have an affinity with McEniry’s, as if they would—if they could—sit around a kitchen table laughing and drinking coffee, swapping stories. In his review of Laux’s second collection, What We Carry, Tony Hoagland discusses how Laux’s “calm, concretely rich, passionate poems document and celebrate the experiences of mature womanhood, its danger, disappointments, and pleasures.” He could have been describing McEniry’s poetry, as both McEniry and Laux use specific, rich language that addresses memory and women’s experience. Laux’s poem, “Fast Gas,” reflects on a scene from the past which parallels the burning of the awakened female body:


Fast Gas

Before the day of self service,

when you never had to pump your own gas,

I was the one who did it for you, the girl

who stepped out at the sound of a bell

with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back

in a straight, unlovely ponytail.

This was before automatic shut-offs

and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,

I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas

backed up, came arcing out of the hole

in a bright gold wave and soaked me—face, breasts,

belly and legs. And I had to hurry

back to the booth, the small employee bathroom

with the broken lock, to change my uniform,

peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin

and wash myself in the sink.

Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt

pure and amazed—the way the amber gas

glazed my flesh, the searing,

subterranean pain of it, how my skin

shimmered and ached, glowed

like rainbowed oil on the pavement.

I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,

for the first time, in love, that man waiting

patiently in my future like a red leaf

on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty

that asks to be noticed. How was I to know

it would begin this way: every cell of my body

burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me

a nimbus of light that would carry me

through the days, how when he found me

weeks later, he would find me like that,

an ordinary woman who could rise

in flame, all he would have to do

is come close and touch me.


Both Laux and McEniry focus a clear-eyed gaze on blue-collar work. In this poem, Laux is familiar with the language of the work, the “automatic shut-offs” and “vapor seals.” The burning in this poem is both literal and metaphorical, with the “amber gas / glazed my flesh” and at the end of the poem, how this “ordinary woman” could “rise / in flame.”

In his essay “American Poets and Blue Collar Work,” Ron McFarland says of Laux, “No other poet I have encountered demonstrates such detailed mastery of the nature of the work involved or of the terminology or jargon necessary to convey a convincing portrait of the specific work that is the subject matter of the poems.” Likewise, McEniry’s “Once,” absolutely vibrates with the language of the world of auto mechanics. We believe this narrator, and we believe this poem. In it, a female awakening of a different sort takes years, and happens in a dense cascade of language:



to win the heart of a boy I listened to him talk about

crankshafts and camshafts and driveshafts and overdrive,

and when listening wasn’t enough I learned the difference

between boxed and open, fixed and adjustable, Allen

and ratchet, so I could hand them to him when he was under

the hood, learned even quicker the obvious fact that

babe, there’s a fucking world of difference between 1/4 and 3/8,

which might have been my first clue, but I was deep

in love with the confidence and wisdom that a ’69

Rally Sport, a hardcover Chilton’s Repair Manual, and a full-

time job in the family business give a guy. I even convinced

myself that knowing how to change a radiator, change

brakes, change spark plugs, change fan belts and timing

belts and drive belts would serve me better in the long run

than going from high school to Katherine Gibbs Secretarial

School when my parents couldn’t pay Federal Mortgage Corp.

or JCP&L or NJ Bell or even school hot lunches for three kids

younger than me. And so I took all the tips I made at R Gang

Sandwich Shop that month and bought an AutoMeter Street Rod

Designer Black Tachometer, the most expensive single

item I ever purchased. And the night he mounted

it on his dash, wired it to his engine, and the gauge proved

how high performance his car was, he took me to Arby’s 

to celebrate. It was there that he told me we were made

for each other, we made a good team, pulled out a box

from Kay Jewelers and proposed marriage. When I left

him 26 years later, I walked past a Harley Sportster

motor on our dining room table on my way to phone a friend

for a ride because all three vehicles in the driveway had his

name on their pink slips. I still don’t own my own car, still

deal with the shame of asking for rides. While I have pumped

some gas, refilled some wiper fluid, and once filled four

tires with air, I’m happy I could choose to break off

my intimate relationship with what’s under a hood. Sometimes

when I’m a passenger and I feel a drag on acceleration

or a grinding at stop signs, I find myself frustrated, thinking about

what parts we’d need to fix it right.


This rush of concrete detail leads to the irony of a new tachometer prompting a marriage proposal. Both poems achieve an immediacy using the “I” where the narrator survives youth to tell the story. Neither poet romanticizes or digresses into nostalgia, but both instead focus a clear-eyed gaze on blue collar work through the filter of the female experience. McFarland asserts “attention to those involved in manual labor has reasserted itself in American poetry over the past forty years, notably in the writing of poets like...Laux.” Laux reflects on her own working life, “but from a distance of many years.” McFarland goes on to say that for Laux, “blue collar jobs, including taxing manual labor, appear to offer a source of pride, at least as regarded in retrospect.” McEniry’s narrator learns auto mechanics in pursuit of love and to escape from a grim family situation where she convinces herself “knowing how to change a radiator, change brakes, change spark plugs, change fan belts and timing belts and drive belts would serve me better in the long run than going from high school to Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School.” The repetition of all those belts implies limitation and suppression in McEniry’s poem, and twenty-six years later, the narrator is relieved to have left both auto repair and the relationship behind. While “Fast Gas” ends with the anticipation of a new relationship, both poems contain an implicit thread of women subjugating themselves for love, with pain still present from well-learned lessons. Yet McEniry’s narrator still takes pride in knowing “what parts we’d need to fix it right.”

The poems in McEniry’s collection, while rich in detail, action, desire, and discovery, never burden the narrative with unnecessary detail or overt emotion. McEniry’s poetry often shares theme, concern, and technique with that of Clifton and Laux, and uses language authentic to the time and place of these poems. While wrenchingly honest, the narratives in these poems move from darkness to light with an intensity that vibrates throughout. 



Pamela Hirschler’s poetry chapbook, What Lies Beneath, was published in 2019 by Finishing Line Press.  Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently in Riparian (Dos Madres Press), Pine Mountain Sand & GravelStill: The Journal, and The Heartland Review. Her work was included in the 2018-2019 Women of Appalachia Project, and she was a finalist for the Joy Bale Boone prize in 2018.  She holds an MFA in Poetry from Drew University.  Pamela lives with her husband in Frankfort, Kentucky. More about her work can be found at