Something in the Potato Room

By Heather Cousins

Kore Press
October 2009, Paperback
80 pages

Something in the Potato Room

Reviewed by Danielle Sellers


As graduate students together in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, Heather Cousins and I were given this advice by J.D. McClatchy:

A poem needs disguises. It needs secrets. It thrives on the tension between what is said and not said; it prefers the oblique, the implied, the ironic, the suggestive: when it speaks, it wants you to lean forward a little to overhear; it wants you to understand only years later.

Heather Cousins most definitely took his advice to heart when writing Something in the Potato Room, winner of Kore Press’s 2009 First Book Award, judged by Patricia Smith, who called the book an “addictive cinema [which] unwinds with lyrical and dramatic certainty.”

I don’t want to give the ending away, but what I can tell you is that in this book-length prose poem, she creates a situation that is essentially unbelievable, but with such great attention to detail and development of character that the reader has no choice other than to believe the tale that’s spun is a kind of truth.

Cousins’ nameless character is a young woman, working a dead-end job: “Typing. Copying. Balancing the museum’s accounts.” This is a girl who sits at her desk wishing her fingernails would grow, who, when nervous, draws Maltese crosses. Her saliva tastes like “pennies,” like “head on beer.” She’s a bit of a hypochondriac. She often thinks she has diphtheria, cancer. She times palpitations. She’s unmarried, lives alone, is practical with “good girl underwear.” Before her discovery in the potato room, she considers jumping from a balcony.

At the beginning of the poem, the girl’s boss suggests she take a vacation. At the beach, she’s slathered in sun block, reading The Heart of Darkness for the fourth time. From the shore, she sees a fish “being rolled in the breakers. Pale. Bloated.” She walks “out to the shell line, where mole crabs bubbled and ran with every wave. The fish was metal, covered with small clams. It wasn’t a fish. It was some sort of missile. A torpedo. A wayward. A slipshod.” For the girl, what she perceives as truth is always a mirage. By now, she thought her life would be different, but fate somehow manages to pull the rug out from under her every time. To her dismay, the fantastical that is an illusion to most, is somehow her norm.

Cousins’ style of writing goes against the norm, too. One doesn’t expect to find a book-length poem written mostly in prose, but Cousins’ language is controlled, often creating pause and suspense with short sentences. There’s much space between the poems, and interspersed throughout the collection are odd illustrations of butterflies, the human body, 19th century scientific experiments, spoons, etc., all of which speak to the text but also create a mood all their own. One becomes curious as to their meaning, their deliberate placement within the narrative. Something in the Potato Room does double-duty as an ekphrastic journey, a commentary on what is drawn and what is not spelled out.

One can also imagine the book itself as a museum of oddities. Of the museum where she works, the girl says, “What I wanted to do most in the museum was touch. To have that authority, which no visitor is permitted.” She imagines the lives of the artifacts, like a tray of Civil War buttons, “one with a gouge across the eagle. I imagine the original owner— hair color, rotted tooth, muddy blanket, bear dreams, final vision: shuddering birds, winged readies dropping from the sky.” Where the average mind is filled with memories, the girl’s mind is instead a museum brimming with possibility and surreal images with no practical use, as is the potato room itself, in the cellar of her new house, which lacks the “roots,” “earwigs,” and “sacking” one would expect to find. Instead, what the girl finds there on the earthen floor of the room makes her feel “pink and full of skin.” What she finds in the dark brings her out of her own darkness. It saves her, albeit it’s an unlikely savior. Creating this type of odd, neurotic, and believable character is not easily done, but Cousins’ girl is so honest, vulnerable, without malice or design, that she endears herself to the reader. Into the interior of her home and mind, we are willing to follow. Cousins is a new voice launching an exciting career, one which readers of Something in the Potato Room are sure to follow.