Bay Area Lit Scene: Mrs. Dalloway’s

The Garden of Poetry at Mrs. Dalloway’s

Reviewer: Sarah Louise Green

Reviews Editor: Meg Hurtado

Photographs bought to you by: Robert Andrew Perez, Jr.



Location: Mrs. Dalloway’s 2904 College Ave., Berkeley, CA

Curator: Mary Fox
Mrs Dalloway’s Contact Person: Mary Fox

Parking/Transportation: Unless you have the strange & good fortune of finding a spot on College, your best bet is to turn left on Russell and left again into the small lot that the bookstore shares with some of the neighboring restaurants and shops.

The Run of Things: Come early to browse. The bookstore has a carefully curated poetry selection as well as robust offerings of biography, gardening, and other sorts of books. The crowd trickles in, but there will likely be no seats left as the reading begins.

Is There a Blog? Yes. You can find the schedule of readings and other events on their website.

Upcoming Poetry Readings: Marc Elihu Hofstadter and Stephen Kessler will read Friday, 2/5/2010 at 7:30 p.m.

Poems from and photos of each of the readers will be featured within this review.


There is no place quite like Mrs. Dalloway’s, partly due to the thoughtful selection of both plants and books overseen by longtime friends and store founders Marion Abbott and Ann Leyhe. The space is charming and provides much fodder for those interested in either literary or garden arts. And though Mrs. Dalloway’s isn’t the largest bookstore in the area, its quality is superb. One need look no further than the events hosted by the store from garden demonstrations to literary readings by well-respected local figures, such as Matthew Zapruder, D.A. Powell, and Graham Foust.  Mary Fox, who curates the series and introduced the poets, won me over quickly by offering me a bundle of poems from the most recent Poem In Your Pocket celebration, which the bookstore marked by offering free poems by Bay Area poets. After getting acquainted with both Mary and the readers, the audience settled into our seats for a magnificent evening of poetry.

The title poem of Cheryl Dumesnil’s book, In Praise of Falling, serves as a fitting guide to the first part of the evening—begin with details, fraught with potential hazards, and move toward the intimate. After a moment of recognizing the incomprehensible tragedy in Haiti, we were plunged into a world both familiar and menacing as “a guy in his yard burning leaves, a spark / from a gas-powered mower, that Old Crow bottle // smashed in a field, finally finding its flame” (“It’s Not Armageddon”). As the poem says, it’s not Armageddon; it’s not even catastrophe—these poems take the world as their tinderbox. Everything has the power to incite as well as the power to consume. And the book wrangles with this mercurial existence with a praise that is anything but haphazard and keenly aware of the dangers within.

Cheryl did such a wonderful job explaining the structure of the book clearly and thoroughly as well as reading the poems with a measured pacing, so as to let the listener turn over her collections of details once more. The poems often take places as their titles, but even when they are unspecific, they are relentlessly located in the quotidian: “nickels falling in the slot machine’s mouth”, “rusted-out laundry wringer”, “snapped bike chain, / crumpled sock, fifty-gallon drum // shot through with .22 holes” (“Bernal Heights” and “A Soldier’s Home, Hughes, Arkansas, 1970”). While common, these characters are invested with the possibility of transformation, such as a fish turning into a comet or the chevrons on a uniform taking off like birds—here, falling becomes flight.

How fitting since, as Cheryl explained, the book begins with poems of lifting up; then, it moves to coming-of-age, identity, and love. And as she moved closer to the end of her reading (and the book), the emotional stakes of the poems shot up (not like birds, but like fireworks), and Cheryl correspondingly grew more reticent between poems; earlier, she had been generous with information concerning the poems’ origins or with anecdotes related to her writing and the writing life in general. As an audience member, her gradual (and subtle) retraction heightened the intensity of the experience—we all leaned in closer for more and more of the speaker in front of us. And as we immersed ourselves, by listening, in the dilapidated, rural scene of “Getting It Right This Time”, we found the speaker waiting for us, as she had been all along:

Getting It Right This Time – Cheryl Dumesnil

If we ever meet, wordless,
staccato of December rain
hammering the metal overhang,

may the person I am then
press my tired hand to your
rounded belly, trace a finger

around the equator I mapped
our first night, orbiting
from navel back to navel

call you mine. If it ever
happens like that, if some
post-apocalyptic day we’re made

strangers by too much buried
hurt, may the person you are then
remember that hobos paint,

with their wet fingers, barely visible
signs on dusty farmhouse doors.
Remember an inverted triangle

with two dots above it says
this one will give you water,
two lines cut across an oval

means this one will take you in.

At this point in the reading, Cheryl Dumesnil ceded the mic to Robin Ekiss, who commenced with the poem featured below:

The Question of My Mother

The question of my mother is on the table.
The dark box of her mind is also there,
the garden of everywhere
we used to walk together.

Among the things the body doesn’t know,
it is the dark box I return to most:
fallopian city ingrained in memory,
ghost-orchid egg in the arboretum,

hinged lid forever bending back and forth—
open to me, then closed
like the petals of the paper-white narcissus.
What would it take to make a city in me?

Dark arterial streets, neglected ovary
hard as an acorn hidden in its dark box
on the table: Mother, I am
out of my mind, spilling everywhere.

The nautilus-like movement of this particular poem, winding closer and closer to the body, was a perfect transition into Robin Ekiss’s reading of her debut volume, The Mansion of Happiness. The title of her book, as she informed the audience, is taken from a nineteenth century morality board game and hints at the once-novel treasures found within this Wunderkammer. While easy it’s to delight in the dolls, miniatures, and other curiosities, the poems (especially the opening poems) involve the speaker explicitly—“I was raised in the company of dolls” (“Preface”)—and often uncomfortably. Robin spoke freely about how many of the poems draw on her childhood experiences of growing up with a mother who was a miniaturist, but just as swiftly addressed the fact that many of the poems explore maternal experience—a thing which, at the time these poems were written, she had no direct knowledge of.

A gentle tension evolved between the details she claimed as autobiographical or outright explained (“the garden of everywhere” was seen on a billboard for the Stanford Shopping Center) and the details that were left a bit more vague or clearly related to other figures in the poem. This, in turn, created a pleasant game for the listener whose goal was not heaven, but rather, an understanding of the poet-at-hand, which may perhaps be a taller order. From the “nested” relationship of mother and daughter (“Genealogy”) to the menagerie of characters presented in the latter half of the book—Thomas Edison, René Descartes, Houdini, and the Android Clarinetist, to name a few—the listener had a variety of sources for both pleasure and wonder at his or her disposal.

In addition to the inherent vibrancy of the poems, Robin interwove engaging anecdotes about Descartes’ doll, Francine, who was like a surrogate daughter to him; about visiting the largest collection of nineteenth-century automatons in France; about the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film”. When the conversation turned to the Musée Mécanique, which was formerly housed under the Cliff House near the old Sutro Baths and Playland-at-the-Beach, the audience became extremely animated. A back-and-forth exchange between an audience member and Robin culminated in Robin performing an unforgettable (and likely accurate) impression of “Laffing Sal”, which had everyone in stitches. My friends and I were laughing so hard that we completely missed the photo opportunity, but here is another:

A wonderful time was had by all. I encourage you to check out both Cheryl and Robin’s books, if you haven’t already, and pay a visit to Mrs. Dalloway’s for browsing or for the next poetry reading on February 5th. All of them will be well worth your time!