Thunderhead (Emily Rose Cole)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

When I first started reading Emily Rose Cole’s gorgeous and devastating poetry collection, Thunderhead, my mother was frail and heading toward the end of her life. Now having “lost” my mother (at the end of 2022), my returning to reading Cole’s powerful collection at the beginning of 2023 proved influential while understandably tough for me. While I identify as genderqueer, I was always my mother’s daughter.

Cole’s tenacious imagery of a daughter’s identity, and the associated raw, shifting, and at-times nostalgic depictions that she underscores in art and thus in life-and-death make for a powerful experience, perhaps regardless of one’s identity, biography, and direct or indirect experience as a reader. But, particularly, this may be the powerful case for those of us who have an intimate understanding of “complex bereavement” and related losses and who seek to read these poems not for solace but, perhaps, for cathexis—among other nuances.

Cole’s language is simultaneously fissured and fossilizing. It is fascinating to experience impermanence and a sense of fleeting energy while knowing—and sensing, beyond and within the words—that what is malleable is likewise sticking. These poems are sap on many kinds of bark near insects still breathing in their frozen amber bits. What breaks off can be reclaimed without romanticization. It is clear throughout the book that Cole is a talented lyricist, for many of these poems feel like mournful yet bright songs.

I’m pleased that the Wisconsin Poetry Series, edited by Ronald Wallace and Sean Bishop, includes Thunderhead among its publications. Judy Jordan’s description of Cole’s work as “fiercely imaginative” and “heart-wrenching” rings true. While we as readers are faced “squarely”—and far less linearly—with trauma, acute and chronic illness, and, as Jordan notes, “the body cut open and sacrificed,” the grief-work that this book renders is far more than merely redemptive.

The combination of historical, mythographic, and real-while-invented female figurations offers a compelling and creative approach to bestowing Cole’s never patronizing life-lessons with respect to loss, gender, and disablement. This book is teaching without didactics.

In “Spell for Courage,” the poet begins the paragraphic piece with the three words, “Only crushed things.” The short poem references a garden, a drawer, “sprigs of thyme,” and fire, among many other themes and images. Reading the poem is a bit like zooming in to a miniature, incantatory version of The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (sans his racist, ableist, and sexist idioms). This wow piece (among so many other wow pieces in Cole’s book) concludes with the flourish, “What you crushed, give to the wind. In place of an / incantation, unstitch the secret sewn to the underside / of your tongue. You know the one. Say it. Say it again.”

If “Spell for Courage” is indeed “an incantation,” having called itself by way of its title a “spell,” by its not-end we have been asked—or, whomever crushed something (or someone) is being instructed, directed—to recite something in place of the poem, “unstitch[ed]” in lieu of the poem, and yet (only? more?) possible because of the poem. And, if I’m not that you, maybe you are. I think many of us could be a you who has been hailed by the poet. So, we “know” already, or we can know now, about “the secret sewn,” and we must “say it” and “say it again.” This practice is how grief sometimes manifests. The wind will take what we give it and there may be some injury in the unstitching, but something else will likely happen after the newness of breakage and mending in their cyclical realms.

The bold line, “some days I like her better gone,” in “How Not to Remember Your Mother” is as freeing as it is audacious. “Asked if I Miss My Mother, I Say I Miss the House” includes a fairy-tale reference to a crumb-trail leading to a threshold, along with references to a whistling train, a bee’s wing, and hymns, among other magics. The placement of “MS Nocturne According to Ecclesiastes” (one of several “MS Nocturnes”) on the page opposite “Asked if I Miss My Mother, I Say I Miss the House” seems purposeful, as do all of the other precise placements of poems throughout the book. The worn-grooved yet fresh, skipping record between creatively formatted lines on the page of the ecclesiastical piece is in conversation with its companion poem. In this way, and in so many other respects, Thunderhead is both its own album and an accessible orchestral score. Cole’s book as a crip feminist work is evocative not only of Chopin’s nocturnes, but of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” including its own uniquely shifting transcripts, bold captions, and vivid image descriptions.

Title: Thunderhead
Author: Emily Rose Cole
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Date: 2022

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener (she/they) became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. She is the author of The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Diane’s flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; her short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. She has poetry and creative nonfiction forthcoming in eMerge. Diane served as Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Assistant Editor after being Guest Editor for the Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics. Diane has published widely on Disability, education, accessibility, equity, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Genderqueer and Enby, Ashkenazi Jewish Hylozoist Nerd who is honored to serve in the nonprofit sector–including as a Zoeglossia Board member. You can visit Diane online at: