By Anete Kruusmägi
Emma Shepard’s poems and essays investigate the beauty and pain of growing up. In I Am Trying To Fall In Love With Myself But Instead I Keep Falling In Love With Unemployed Noise Musician Who Do Coke and Believe in the Power of Crystals, her first chapbook (Bottlecap Press), she does an excellent job capturing the confusion and insecurity that form during adolescence, the time when we are not yet sure who we are, when a solitary remark can cut deep into our hearts and the world is still a big and unpredictable chaos.
In one of her essays, Shepard offers a quote her grandmother scribbled in her journal–“never do anything you wouldn’t want the world to know. She shares that this is a reminder to her to speak up, and that’s exactly what she is doing in this collection. She puts herself on the paper in order to find herself, to reach back to the beginning, all the way to childhood. She’s looking for answers from her ancestry, from the life of her grandmother who had an affair with her therapist.
The essay “About my Grandma & Online Dating” tells us about the narrator’s failed dates, how she couldn’t shut up about his mental issues and how this cost her a potential partner or friend.
She talks about the need to show the darkest side of herself. Mental health is a recurring theme in her poems and essays. For example, a poem “there’s a hole inside of me bigger than i am” talks about her inability to love herself. She is fighting with the feeling of emptiness:
i am trying to suck that void up with a straw
and spit it back out
and the fear of being alone:
I’m telling you that I have mono phobia, that I’m so afraid of being alone that it’s not an option for me.
The first thing the reader will notice is the author’s love for long titles. Sometimes they feel never-ending, and sometimes they are like little stories themselves. For example, the second poem in her book is called: “walk five blocks to the corner store and turn around when you realize you don’t want to see anyone.” Long titles represent the need to fill the void and express an outburst of teenage angst. They represent the time in our lives when our expressions are raw and honest, when we don’t bother to hide ourselves behind the walls of politeness.
One of the strengths of this collection is surely the author’s ability to express the feelings of a teenager and to show the amplitudes our life takes in our twenties. In her opening poem, she gives a great picture of the summers of growing up. How impulsive drug taking—now I need your help / getting down the stairs– walks hand in hand with learning the responsibilities of adult life.–next you’re taking your driver’s ed.
Shepard sprinkles her texts nicely with references to ‘90s and ‘00s pop culture, such as Fight Club, OkCupid, Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” or Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again”. These references will bring most readers in their 20s and early 30s back to their fragile teenage years.
Adolescence is all about potential. We walk around dreaming about the life we will have, constructing possible conversations for hours in a row, drafting the scenarios of events yet to happen. Coming back to earth, we’re always in doubt, never sure if we are worth all of that potential. Shepard has captured this feeling masterfully:
i feel so worthy of the love
that you have the potential to give me
The other things that occupy teenagers’ minds are moral concerns. I remember myself being extremely sensitive to injustice and being reminded constantly that the world is not a fair place and I should learn to live with that.But how can we live knowing that some people eat roadkill, that people can throw out our old stuff not knowing what it means to us, or that they think about Jessica Alba while touching our bodies. The teenager inside of us cries out: “Wrong!” while the adult just shrugs declaring: “That’s life”. Shepard ends the poem “b-side version of that alanis morissette song” laconically:
isn’t it ironic
isn’t it sweet
Shepard has a great ability to look at her own generation from afar. She criticizes vegans with hand-me-down leather and makes fun of New York millennials, people who are so often looked up to, because seemingly they have all we have ever dreamed of.
Shepard’s essays are like long poems. Her gripping, well-crafted sentences kept me on the edge of my seat, yearning for more. The trick is that she doesn’t just make her writing sound nice, but she actually has something to say.
I’m never going to find everything I want in one person, so I have to be all the other pieces that I need.
She is writing for twentysomethings about the things they care about: finding love, failed dates, and fear of loneliness. There is nothing new about theses themes, yet she has found a way to describe them through the filter of the 21st century. She contrasts women’s wishes to find someone who could bare the worst of them with contemporary young men’s biggest dream to find the manic pixie girl, who exists just to solve their problems, and thus don’t exist at all.
She is the mutual wet dream of every heterosexual white dude, but she doesn’t exist anywhere.
In her last essay, she returns to teenager problems: first love, high school, sexual confusion. Even if we haven’t had a gay relationship in our youth, we have probably been worried about whether or not to end a text message to someone we like with an exclamation mark or a period. She’s taking us back to the world where we felt so damn uncomfortable, where we had constant mini heart attacks. Shepard definitely has the talent to grab her reader by the hand and take her back in time. Her book left me dizzy, wondering: was it really me she just wrote about?
Anete Kruusmägi is a writer from Estonia. She is currently doing a residency in Finland while working on two novel projects. She studied comparative literature at the University of Tartu (Estonia) and creative writing at the University of Westminster (UK). Her writing has appeared in Värske Rõhk, Melancholy Hyperbole, Jess, and elsewhere.