Review by Yvonne Higgins Leach
Katy Ellis’ book-length prose poem Home Water, Home Land has all the ingredients that make for an engaging read: inspiring settings, unexpected turns, and character growth. I read the book in one sitting, turning each page to keep learning more about the narrator’s journey of breaking away, of experiencing new borders of land and water, new relationships, and questioning what she truly desires. I read each page relishing the beautiful language, the poetry of life.
The book is written as an entire prose poem. At first that can seem overwhelming, but Ellis organized it in three digestible sections. Then within those sections, she included short, titled entries. This structure enabled me to move along swiftly.
The book is a snapshot in time of a young woman discovering her place in the world. The speaker moves away from home where religious practice was the foundation of the family structure, with high expectations that no one was to break away from these principles. As can often occur with a young adult exploring the world, she began questioning her religious practice and traditions, questions which her parents rejected. Sadly, this ended in the irreconcilable outcome of excommunication.
She moves to Canada where the map of borders and culture too challenge her to self-reflect. The speaker finds herself questioning her American identity in the context of stereotypical traits. When her newfound friends tell her “it is not you we hate, it is your country,” she realizes she has never seen her country, or herself, from outside her own borders.
She discovers her sexuality and what it means when our bodies collide with others, what it means to be in relationship, and the bravery it takes to move on when it doesn’t work out.
Woven throughout the book is her desire for motherhood. Her meditative ponderings take a lovely turn when she begins addressing her daughter. These inserted letters amidst this life journey make for a tender and emotional experience for the reader. We learn more deeply about the speaker’s desires, hopes, curiosities, and personal growth. An example is in one of her epistles to her daughter, when she so beautifully describes how it is through Nature (the moon) that she finds her spirituality. She says, “It was the first of many times I sensed the strength of moon as Holy Ghost, electrifying my deepest self, gathering the reserves I would need for my future as a young woman growing up on this planet on the cusp of the next millennium.”
The beautiful poetic language is consistent throughout the book and serves as a way for her to reveal further dynamics in her relationships. In one of the letters addressing her daughter, she writes:
…We are avalanche lily.
We are the newborn shape of Spirit Lake.
We are ant and pocket gopher,
moss, and dwarf bramble.”
In another section, about her relationship with her parents she writes, “…the three of us tying and untying the tangled, barnacle-encrusted lines that hold us to one another’s shores.” Metaphors abound, quilting the book together.
At times I forgot I was reading a prose poem. I felt I was in the middle of a coming-of-age novel, where the tension of family and faith, of relationship and self-discovery, of place and culture were captivating. The poems’ speaker is curious and constantly questions these themes against the foundation of her upbringing. An interesting, and surprising, example of this occurs in the last section when Ellis describes the tragedy of 9/11 and recounts it against what she was doing in her own life at the time.
After chronicling much of her life’s journey, especially around her excommunication and finding herself married and living on an island, the speaker reveals that she did find her strength, her deepest self. I am honored to have been witness to her journey, so eloquently written, so full of care and compassion.
Home Water, Home Land by Katy Ellis
Tolsun Books, 2022, $22.00
Yvonne Higgins Leach is the author of a collection of poems called Another Autumn (Cherry Grove Collections, 2014). She splits her time living on Vashon Island and in Spokane, Washington. For more information, visit www.yvonnehigginsleach.com