Albany, Ohio, resident Stephanie Kendrick, is a talented and provocative poet as well as a graduate student in Social Sciences at Ohio University and a mother of a young son. Those who love the spoken word will recognize Stephanie Kendrick from the Thursday Night Open Mic she created with Ohio Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour, a virtual reading series (promoted on Facebook), which attracts poets, fiction writers, storytellers, and songwriters from across the country. As host, Kendrick does a fine job of introducing readers, but many Athenians may not realize that Kendrick’s debut collection of poetry, Places We Feel Warm, was published by Main Street Rag Press in March of 2021.
The poetry in Places We Feel Warm addresses those opening questions. In addition, it leads the reader through the meaningful and problematic journey of the poet’s teenage life and young adulthood, through moments of despair and moments of grace. Readers, especially those from this region, may recognize some of the mileposts Kendrick points to, as the poet stops along the way to ask what shaped my world, what shook my world, what made me stronger, who was I, and who am I now?
The cover image of this book, in soft sepia tones, depicts a typewriter and a just barely unmade bed; the photographs evoking that inner chamber, that small place of safety in the face of all that shakes our sense of self and security, and typewriter seems indicative of a way to put a life onto the page. Both images, photographed by Kendrick, combine with the title to ground this collection in personal experiences, ones that feel shared from a place of intimacy.
The title poem, “Places We Feel Warm,” (the poem that begins the book), opens with a tender moment between the poet and her son:
When my son was three
he said he remembered my belly
red, loud, & wet
& he wanted back in.
Yet, in an adept shift, instead of dwelling on this tender moment, Kendrick uses that recollection as a launching pad, a way to charge the poem with her voice, to strategically introduce themes found in this collection, and offer the first glimpse of her persona to the reader. Red, loud, wet all evoke poetic images unique to the poet’s identity. “They don’t know what red is, boys I mean,” writes Kendrick. Red is her hair as a girl, the color of sheets fading on the line, the color her “mother saw when a man walked into the room.” Loud evokes women “like Kathy Bates wrapped in straight-jacket cellophane” or women who “took sledgehammers /to the walls of their home, drowning the noise in scratched records.” Wet is charged with erotic intensity: “Skinny dipping with boys who had fangs / not being kissed until I was 18.” This poem weaves images from the poet’s past and shapes her perspective for the reader. After the reader is able to weigh the impact of Red, Loud and Wet, the poet resolves the poem by telling her son, “babe, we’re too big to get back in.” Yes, the use of “we’re” is not just conversational. It rings out as intentional, a word that includes both the poet and her son. Not getting “back in” is a charge to take on the task of dealing with the world.
A glance at the book’s table of contents provides insight about the subjects covered in the twenty-three poems: Monogamy, Your Mother’s Home, In Retrospect, Baptism, Wild Women, When He Asks, Camel Lights, What I Don’t Say about my Tattoos, Women on Drugs, These Towns, How I Know the River is Woman, and others. All of these poems are fresh, both in language as well as with respect to the poet’s voice and perspective on life.
We find out as we age that life is not always predictable, and certitude can be suspect, and one of the great pleasures of Kendrick’s writing is that the poetry not only embraces life’s inherent uncertainties as a subject, but from a perspective of craft, the poetry surprises and delights the reader with unpredictability from one line to the next, and from one poem to the next.
This approach challenges the reader to investigate his or her own preconceptions. In “Baptism,” from the first line, readers are drawn to the tone, to the independence of the voice, to the way the poem reveals a tension in the poet about safeguarding individuality and forming a clear self-identity:
If you think I’m going to bend backwards,
head first in the shallow end
of the Ohio River, you have rocks for brains. . .
. . . Every damn time I have water to my knees
I am swimming away from boys who want
to dunk me under, see me drown,
& still come up for air.
In an interview with poet Wendy McVicker, archived on the WOUB podcast River of Words, Kendrick mentions her connection to both the Ohio and the Hocking Rivers. Kendrick was born in Ashland, Kentucky, moved to Wellston, Ohio, at age nine, and then arrived in Athens to attend Ohio University. Her formative experiences took place in Southeastern Ohio. Kendrick, who works for the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities and is on the Albany Village Council, writes with an intimate awareness of the struggles of coming of age, especially in young women in this region. Kendrick shows readers that she has seen the way coal towns, once prosperous, have declined, and how addiction has taken its toll. The stunning poem “Women on Drugs” demonstrates these insights:
Women on drugs suck Coca-Cola through Revlon-stained straws.
They have no time to think about saving turtles,
they are navigating their own paths to vast oceans
sand in their eyes, wet heat in their throat. . . .
Kendrick’s poetry draws on her observations as well as personal experience. The poet reveals that she has faced some of these social pressures, grappled with her own course of action in an effort to find her own way. In the poem “When He Asks” the poet writes:
When He Asks
if I want to share a pill with him.
. . I hesitate.
I wore a crop top for this very occasion
bones aching to carry this skin home.”
For a book entitled Places We Feel Warm, readers may not emerge with easy answers, or find a roadmap for living that points to warm places of comfort and security. Many of the poems ask unresolved questions. None of these poems take the easy way out. When troubling or violent moments arise in life, poetry can become a focal point, a demonstration of how the impact of cruelty lingers, without being overtly proscriptive. Left to draw their own conclusions, readers feel the impact when the poetry feels honest. One of the more difficult poems to read from the poet’s childhood describes the death of a box turtle, entitled “Armor.”
Twenty years ago I watched my brothers
take bat to box turtle
squealing with each swing. . .
. . . Now I tell those I love
turtles are my favorite animal,
collect knick-knacks on vacation,
yearn to see one on the shore.
When I cry in the aquarium,
they think it’s out of love.
Stephanie Kendrick’s poetry is characterized by a sense of directness and dexterity. Her collection does not only dwell on the upheavals of the poet’s life, but it does allow the reader to understand that the poet’s perspective was forged in the crucible of her experience, and mediated by her gifts for poetic craft as well as imagination. In “How Do I Know the River is a Woman,” Kendrick writes:
. . . She is home to life she did not create, all
of its shit, tears & rot becomes her & she
does not stop carrying it all: she can’t.
In a deft move, Kendrick ends the book with a second portrait of her son, older now, out in the world. In “Leave Nothing but Footprints,” Kendrick writes, “This is how we step out of ourselves – into chicory, through ivy, we sweat / with breaths that blend in birdsong and rise.” This poem moves in an opposite direction than the first poem. Instead of directing its gaze inward (her three year old son seeking to wall himself back into the womb), this poem focuses outward, into the world. Its satisfying and tender tone acts as an argument in favor of vividly lived experience, as if to say that by facing the world without “walls to shield us,” we can “step into patches of light.”
In a review of Places We Feel Warm, poet Pauletta Hansel calls the book a “ferocious debut.” Author Natalie Sypolt asks, “What more can we expect of a poet than to pull back the curtain, lay bare a collective heart?” Ohio Poet Laureate and former Athens Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour tells us, Kendrick “sneaks up from behind, barefoot, taps us on the shoulder, lures us...to her deepest places.” I suggest you purchase this book, to find out for yourself where this book can take you.
The Athens County Public Library System will host a virtual reading with Kendrick at 7 p.m. October 7. Register at https://events.myacpl.org/events/guest-poet-stephanie-kendrick-virtual-program