by Amelia Cotter
34 poems ~ 54 pages
Price: $12.00
Publisher: Highland Park Poetry Press
ISBN: 978-0-578-34331-0
To Order: Amazon

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

Sylvia Plath was one of the 20th century’s most important poets. While Plath’s poetry reveals the mind of a genius, she was also among the most troubled and tragic poets of her time. In his book, We Begin in Gladness: Essays in How Poets Progress, Craig Morgan Teicher, writes, “The voluminous critical conversation about Sylvia Plath has tended to orbit a few topics: her suicide, of course, and the ways mental illness and madness perhaps predicted her death and marked her poetry.” Indeed, Plath herself, describes her mental condition just prior to her death with these words:

        “owl’s talons clenching my heart.”

I thought about Plath as I read Amelia Cotter’s bold new collection, apparitions. Unless a person has lived with mental illness, (as Cotter has), it is impossible to appreciate the level of anguish involved when owl’s talons clench the heart.

Cotter’s collection features modern haiku, prose poetry and haibun, all skillfully knitted together to chronicle a journey from darkness into light.

The introduction sets the stage. Using key words: anxiety, depression, isolation, and trauma, Cotter speaks to readers where they live. She then counterbalances with: hope (found in connection with people), reconciliation, redemption, and resiliency. Having experienced two occasions of suicide within my extended family, I quickly sat up and paid attention to Cotter’s plain-spoken outreach to the hurting.

        dog’s distant yelp–
        my helplessness
        measured in yards

This haiku pulls back the curtain of despair which visited Cotter’s life. When I say “visited” I don’t mean a quick hit, then blue skies. I mean an uninvited relative who takes up residence, unpacks his suitcase and settles in. Her prose poem, “The Second City” describes a life-threatening diagnosis: 

        I battled Stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 22
        with a fiery fortitude and fearlessness that, over time,
        has come to burn more like a decorative, scented candle
        than the Great Fire it once was.

This well-crafted poem goes on to profile a raft of challenges that brings into stark relief the symbolism of the dog’s distant yelp–

It is also evident from the above excerpt that Cotter came to terms with her diagnosis to the point where it came to “burn more like a decorative, scented candle / than the Great Fire it once was.”

This is what I like about Cotter’s apparitions. This poet is a fighter. Her use of the term “apparitions” suggests phenomena that rise unexpectedly, then recede as mysteriously as they appeared. “A Haunting,” describes a childhood experience in which the author is chased by a rabid German shepherd. The frightened youth ran for her life until:

        I ducked between two cars for the safety of the sidewalk
        and the condo building my friend lived in. It [the dog]
        darted suddenly up a hill and disappeared around a corner,
        as if it had never been there at all.

At some point, beyond a multitude of ghostly figures entering and exiting her life, Cotter’s narrative reaches a “volta” or “turn.” Cotter decides, within her life and within her poetry, to shed darkness as one sheds a bad night’s sleep. She fights upward and outward, like a swimmer giving all her strength in a push toward the surface.

In an age of ever-increasing numbers of people suffering from various forms of mental illness, apparitions by Amelia Cotter, is a must read. Cotter’s work sets forth the importance of decisions made amid the crises of life. “Pearl Divers” is a gem waiting to be opened:

        Haven’t I always been some composite of lonely and
        sad? Jonathan, too. We can either navigate this together or
        on our own, searching hopefully in each other’s direction.

        of winding rivers …
        your hand in mine


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