Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship

Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, by Erica Abbott

Review by Elijah B Pringle, III

Erica Abbott’s debut chapbook, Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship (Toho Publishing, 2020), is replete with fresh observations and imagery. From her brilliantly conceived “Darkness and Hope” to her manifesto “How to Stargaze Through the Light Pollution, ” Abbott demonstrates she possesses a pen with a different kind of ink.   

The opening poem, “In Darkness and Hope,” dazzles with its playful construction. It can be read one column at a time or horizontally or, as I would suggest, both ways. No matter how you read it, it reveals reassurance and survival and sets the stage for a collection of poems that offers a buoyancy that belie the chapbook’s title. In this poem, the first four lines are about waiting for wishes. Or is it how the world was created?

future me tells ……………..the me of today
how an entire world………is created from stardust
once belonging to…………..this heavenly body
the sky………………………….holding infinite
waited in wishes……………possibilities

Abbott divides her offerings into two sections: “Darkness” and “Hope.”  In “Darkness” the imagery of water and cloaked-ness is most prevalent.  I’m not sure about her decision to include “10 Things You Should Know About Mental Illness” in this section.  I found this poem to be an artist enlightening her readers without hitting them over the head.  Instead of darkness it offers “ah ha’s” and actually removes the darkness of ignorance. One of her insights appears immediate in Section 1 of “10 Things You Should Know About Mental Illness”:

A façade is what makes me acceptable. It keeps
hidden everything that would otherwise scare
if it were to lie in plain sight

This is one of the most obvious and overlooked issues about mental illness—the hiddenness of it. Each section reveals a secret. The last section states the biggest obstacle I have found with mental illness.

You see what you want to see and none
of it is me.
It is not me.
Not from where I stand.   

The remaining poems in this section do not always further the theme of darkness but this does not rob them of their beauty.  The hidden gem for me is “Sandcastles and The Sea.”  The movement of the poem is like the crashing of waves:

I try to blink the saltwater away –
 …….      make my eyes flutter like that of a seabird
in flight – make no mistake

This image is so layered and simple.  “Not The Fire That Kills Me” is a great read. I especially loved seeing anxiety as smoke and fear as the fire which created it:

It is not the fire that kills
me – it’s the smoke
settling in my lungs

This section ends with the title poem “Self Portrait as a Sinking Ship” which is more reassuring then ominous:

No distress signals were ever responded to.
But somehow, against all odds,
I am still staying afloat.

The final section, “Hope,” starts with a beautiful poem that appears to be misplaced in this section.  “Days Like Today” continues the theme of the previous section.  The last lines declare,

You and me –
Because it’s all that’s keeping me alive.

………………..                That has to be enough for now.

These lines relay more of a sense of “oh well” and not the intentional resolve you would expect from hope.  The next poem “Sixty Percent Water” cymbals and boldly rings out survival and offers the hope this section is titled to be:

You are a life – sustaining force,
and you will rebuild yourself. You
hold more than enough power
to make it happen.

The momentum continues with “Saving Grace” and “Light in The Fog.”  How could anyone not love the imagery of “moonlight on a cobweb”? There is also great introspection found in “Stories on Our Skin.”  The last stanza is particularly moving.  It’s tattoo-worthy (albeit a painful one – LOL). The last three lines read:

When people look at me
What kind of story
Do I tell?

This wonderful debut collection crescendos with the manifesto “How to Stargaze Through the Light Pollution.”  Without being clichéd or trite, Abbott reveals to the reader that in darkness we can see the light through the obstructions:

Gaze into the eyes
of your lover. Lose yourself
in every shooting star and supernova
lighting up their face. This is how
you rediscover the universe.     

Erica Abbott (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based poet and writer whose work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, perhappened, Bandit Fiction, and other journals. She is the author of Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship (Toho 2020), her debut poetry chapbook. She volunteers for Button Poetry and Mad Poets Society. Follow her on Instagram @poetry_erica and on Twitter @erica_abbott.

Title: Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship
Author: Erica Abbott
Publisher Toho Press, 2020
Price $12



Elijah B Pringle, III, Artivist, is a former Training Specialist and Director of Training, currently on sabbatical, now focusing his time on writing and editing. He is an advisor for Moonstone Art Center and a poetry editor for ToHo Journal.  Elijah has appeared on Stage, Radio and TV and was one of the hosts for Who Do You Love? a talk show on PhillyCam created by Warren Longmire to discuss writers.  He has been published both nationally and internationally.  Elijah comes from a strong tradition of educators and has facilitated numerous workshops.  He is finishing pre-production work on his play “Should Be …”  


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

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