Review by Erika Rothberg
Joanna Penn Cooper’s second book, What is a Domicile, is a strong collection of poetry revolving—as one might guess from its title—around the space of the home. It is unlike any other collection of poetry I have come across. Most poetry tends to be intimate, but What is a Domicile feels like we are peering into Joanna’s head, without any filter or editing. Being so vulnerable and truly open with your readers is remarkable, and this vulnerability is what kept me so engaged with Joanna’s book.
Some of her poems are fragments of a thought; sometimes, lines go uncompleted and sentences remain half-uttered. The fractured nature of some of these poems ground her work in realism despite their oftentimes ethereal quality. This half-finished-yet-all-done theme reminds me of motherhood, a major topic that runs throughout the book. It makes me picture a young mother balancing her inner thoughts with her outward obligations and duties (perhaps the book’s title had already situated me into a spot wherein I wanted to read Joanna as a mother grappling with her space, but I do think the conclusion is valid regardless). I also particularly loved that this collection is called What is a Domicile, not What is a Domicile? The exclusion of that little tiny question mark speaks volumes about Cooper as a poet defining her work. This is not a question posed to her readers, but rather, a statement which prefaces the body of work found within the covers of this book: this is the domicile, from Cooper’s perspective. This is a representation of what it means to her, laid bare before her readers.
The flow of the book is quite fascinating. Unlike some poetry collections, What is a Domicile is broken up into 3 sections: “Seize the Day,” “Trembling Emblems,” and “What is a Domicile.” Each section feels like its own unit, and it definitely does not feel like these sections were determined without care. “Seize the Day” focuses mostly on personal musings and free-verse poetry; “Trembling Emblems” is more experimental poetry. “What is a Domicile” was definitely my favorite section. It was the longest one of the book, and the most verbose/word-heavy. While the former two sections contained more short and swift poems, the final section was comprised of longer poems and mini-prose (akin to flash fiction.)
If you read this collection, I urge you to pace yourself. Continually check on yourself, because it would be so easy to breeze through this collection in an hour or two. Slow yourself down; relish each poem. Listen to the cadence of the words—read it out loud if you want. You’ll miss so much of the elegant wordplay in this poetry collection if you read it as you would a novel. Take your time and linger on each page, because you’ll walk away having had a much deeper connection with these beautiful little poems.
Pick up a copy of What is a Domicile if you want to read poetry that will make you think. This isn’t a poetry collection like you’ve ever seen. It’s an experience. While lovely, these are not standard love poems; these poems take joy in wabi-sabi-esque moments of relationships, life, and the mystery of maternity (poems like “Slow Crescendo” and “Fragments”—the latter written to her infant son—might make you get a little choked up. I certainly did). Don’t even think about What is a Domicile if you want to read something familiar and safe. Read it if you want to hear a unique set of poems that will—to paraphrase a line from Cooper’s “The Vagabond Nerve”—make your soul echo. It’ll wake you up. Reading such inventive and fresh poetry definitely invigorated me.
Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of What is a Domicile (Noctuary Press, 2014), The Itinerant Girl’s Guise to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014), as well as the chapbooks Mesmer (dancing girl press) and Crown (Ravenna Press). Her creative work has appeared in a number of journals, including South Dakota Review, Poetry International, Supermachine, and Boog City. Joanna holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Temple University, and she has held full-time visiting positions at Marquette University and Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn.