A woman in a white dress in a church parking lot waving.

Church Ladies
by Renee Emerson
Fernwood Press, 2023
86 pages
Reviewed by Ian Williams

In her fourth collection of poems, Church Ladies (Fernwood Press 2023), Renee Emerson spins together a heritage of women from church history. These poems grieve, celebrate, and center women who have been swept aside from our cultural memory — sometimes behind the shadow of a man, sometimes under vows of poverty, sometimes beneath ash. Church Ladies lifts a curtain on church history and carefully examines the women who carried incredible weights of charity, worship, and love to the altar of sacrifice. Through these poems, interspersed with personas of historical figures and familiar faces from American Christianity, Emerson finds holiness in a womanhood at once overflowing with both tenderness and wildness. These poems are burnt offerings that leave the reader at once tattered and made whole.

Throughout the collection, Emerson explores how the world makes women small, but she resists this machinery by celebrating women’s tenacity, wildness, and strength. For example, Emerson lifts up protestant martyr Anne Askew in the poem, “Anne Askew’s Confession,” who sacrificed her own life in 1546 to defend her convictions in the face of the day’s religious authority. Askew is one of only two recorded women who were both tortured in in the Tower of London and then burnt at the stake; part of the reason for her execution was her rejection of male religious gatekeeping, choosing instead to interpret Scripture according to her own reading. Emerson’s Askew refuses to make herself small, rejecting church authority by proclaiming “You have no business with my sin,” before explaining, “Because you are just a man/with your own pocketful of dirty coins” (l. 1, 4-5). She makes her relationship with God at once reverent and candid, saying, “I’ve found that I too can talk to God./There’s no special magic to it” (l. 8-9), creating a divine space of everyday communion with the divine. But Askew cannot stand up for her convictions without sacrifice. There is always a trade-off. Askew resisted human authority for her convictions and her God, but she gave up her life in the effort. For Emerson, the connection between female strength and sacrifice is inextricable and sometimes they appear to be the same.

This theme of sacrifice, whether public or private, threads the entirety of Church Ladies. For example, in “Revival Widow,” Emerson occupies the voice of Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, who describes her marriage as “a ring of no uncertain/terms, unforgiving size” (l. 7-8). She explores Graham’s sacrifice of living in her husband’s shadow: being left in the hospital during a fever, having to abandon prior dreams of travel, and ultimately reflecting upon the nature of sacrifice: “When I held out my open hand,/I didn’t choose what God took from it” (l. 22-23). Here, sacrifice demands and develops strength, even if the purpose of that strength is to endure the loneliness of living with dignity as an afterthought. These poems ask us to confront these obscured lives and feel the weight they’re carrying, to reckon with our own expectations and wrestle with their implications. In the face of these experiences, what becomes our responsibility? The poems don’t preach, don’t end with a tidy answer; they don’t look away. Emerson has a provocative propensity to turn a question back on the reader as we are forced to reckon with the responsibilities that these poems evoke. For example, in “Firstborn,” Emerson pictures children playing, describing a daughter as “Always climbing places where I can’t get you down” (l. 14), before turning the poem back upon itself to consider, “We all want someone to climb for us, to lift us/down. That rescue, the rescue that requires sacrifice” (l. 17-18). In the end, sacrifice becomes a transformative act of love and dedication. Self-denial becomes a gift spent on those we care about. These poems become a challenge to reevaluate how we view ourselves and how we view the world. If, after all, sacrifice is a radical act of transformation – of love – then we must answer who we are sacrificing to, what the cost is, and whether that cost is worth it.

This undercurrent of sacrifice cannot help but yield to a deeply and constantly felt grief that permeates this collection. Emerson writes grief as an everyday burden that women carry almost as an understanding – as an expectation. The women in these poems carry the burdens of heartsick compassion, gun violence, financial hardship, isolation, loss of loved ones, loss of dignity, loss of life. There are fifty-one poems in this collection, but the burdens of womanhood are innumerable. In “Locks,” the speaker reflects upon Saint Crispina who endured the indignity of a shaved head before her eventual execution. In “Foster,” Emerson grieves the helpless suffering and deaths of children facing neglect and abuse. In “Phoebe Palmer as Sunday School Lady,” the subject of the poem cares for children despite her own unimaginable loss. The griefs experienced by the women in Church Ladies are as diverse as they are terrible, and yet somehow these women manage to endure them. But not all of the grief in this collection centers on saints and evangelists of the past or on women removed by time or distance from the reader. Often enough, these poems circle back around to ordinary and familiar struggles. In “Unspoken,” this grief turns into isolation and silent desperation as the speaker wrestles “When your prayer request isn’t just for your grandma’s dog” (l. 1-2), when the stakes are higher, when it’s your own family that needs healing. Emerson describes the worry of anticipatory and uncertain grief. The mental and spiritual negotiation of how things “could be worse” (l. 11), how perhaps, you can carry this weight a little longer. But in the end, this grief circles us back to God as the speaker relents, “You ask it like a child; the first/and sometimes the only word is Help” (l. 16-17). These poems reveal an essential truth: there is a tenacity to grief. And for Emerson, such a tenacity sustains us and circles us closer to the divine. Often enough, the grief, the sacrifice, the struggle of living is reflective of the “luckless” burrowing creature in the collection’s penultimate poem, “To Church Ladies Who Persist.” Here, the speaker and her family cover up a neighborhood critter’s burrow with dirt and we are asked to watch and see “if come morning, she’d dig her way out” (l. 11). In the end, these poems claw their way back into the sun with an understated determination, with a persistent will to live and to see the world “dizzy with harvest” (73).

I do not know if I have read a collection of poems as careful, as tender, as broken, as persistent, as resilient as Church Ladies. These poems carry a strength and dignity at once entrancing and inspiring. A.M. Juster, author of Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books, 2020), writes that Church Ladies “would make a splendid gift to yourself or for those you love,” and he is right. This collection is accessible for all audiences and certain to provoke, convict, and delight.

Church Ladies is available from Fernwood Press, as well as from Amazon and Ingram. More of Emerson’s books can be found on her website: renee-emerson.com.