Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. 

What happens on the razor-thin line between despair and clarity? In these unprecedented times, how can we exorcise our demons? What’s going to be that thing that pushes us underwater– or saves us from drowning, once and for all? 

In her debut chapbook Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, Erica Abbott presents the struggle of an unwell mind to find its peace. Split into “Darkness” and “Hope,” segments named after the title of the collection’s opening poem (which itself begs to be read and reread), the chap explores the brutality of anxiety and depression and contemplates their temper.

Self-Portrait’s strengths are its honesty and vulnerability. Bittersweetly, the ongoing global pandemic and the toll it has taken on our collective mental health makes the topic all the more relevant; from “Ending by Beginning”:

When we emerge from this, this will all feel like 

a nightmare, like all we ever needed was a pinch 

to wake us…. 

When we emerge from this—will we emerge 

from this?

“Darkness” invites considerations of sleeping and wakefulness, dreams and nightmares, water and drowning, writing and blood. We plead to know the question to the speaker’s question: “Can these chapters ever hold the pain / that has long been kept inside?” At times, certain stanzas feel like diary entries not meant for us to read– intimate glimpses into tormenting experiences: the illness of a parent, the paralysis of true friendship, the lure of self-harm, the temptation of suicide (or “slow dancing with death” as in “Saving Grace”).

Hope” contains one more poem, by number, than “Darkness.” Is this a coincidence? Though the ship is sinking, it seems it hasn’t sunk: 

But somehow, against all odds, 

I am still staying afloat.

Each line drips with intensity. The speaker can’t help but to stoke inside our hearts the urge to gather her up in our arms and comfort her– and consider what this would mean for our own self-soothing. As we read, we are invited to internalize the slippery truth that we do have value, by virtue of being. “The Magic of Becoming,” draws our awareness to the importance of our own embodiment: 

…feel / how an 

entire world / beats inside you / whispering / you 

are free / to live / live / be alive / you are breathing 

/ becoming / magic with every / exhale

In “Hope,” we are reminded of our place in the cosmos and our agency to look up, look around, and be comforted as we look into the eyes of our lovers. In these desperate times, have we lost our power to recall the cosmic beauty within and without (“How to Stargaze Through the Light Pollution”)? 

Each poem in Self-Portrait is one more bucket of seawater bailed from the deck of the sinking ship. Abbot seems to be in this fight for all of our sakes: 

you just need to trust in your strength 

and work hard to keep this vessel 

above the rogue waves.

Heartbreaking, uplifting, and painfully timely, Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship is a discreetly selfless debut that will comfort and console us. It is available for purchase here

— Samantha Martin

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