by Melissa Kwasny
Milkweed Editions 2011
Reviewed by Wendy S. Walters
“If that is true, then whose soul is this?”
A frequent element of the prose poem experiment is a wish to seize the unattainable. Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations dramatizes a struggle with such a contradiction—to want to know everything and to recognize that absolute knowledge assures one’s own destruction. Exhilaration and suffering manifest as inevitable consequences of longing, for which no resistance suffices. Only through a momentary re-imagining of space, often through intoxication, can one endure desire. Echoes of this theme can be found in René Char’s earliest “aphoristic verses,” which evoke a sense of displacement that swells and recedes according to changes in passion. A frequent theme in his prose poems is yearning to arrive at places that no longer exist.
In much the same way that the poetry of Rimbaud and Char highlight a sense of consciousness about what cannot be known, Melissa Kwasny’s insightful and moving fourth collection of poems, The Nine Senses, offers an ecological vision of interrelationship, one in which the human and non-human are not effortlessly paired. Excursions into the surreal attempt to account for the chasm between what one can and cannot know about the natural world, but the desire to find meaning in everything interferes with one’s capacity to truly comprehend mortality and eternity. Kwasny’s work suggests that even as we engage in the project of deciphering the difference between the real and surreal, fate has begun to deal out consequences for our wanting the wrong things.
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In The Nine Senses, human engagement with the natural world results in a vision that is, at once, dismal and sublime. The work’s central question might be best articulated by the Char quote that Kwasny uses to introduce the third section of the book: “How can we show, without betraying them, those simple things sketched between the twilight and the sky.” Kwasny’s speaker attempts this but with the foreknowledge that failure is the most likely outcome. This is because the poet is an interloper, one who changes what is being observed by witnessing it, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in play.
The connection between beauty and death is everywhere, despite a lyrical engagement with the imaginary. Just as the speaker becomes enamored of an object or image, it spoils. In “Clairvoyance (Sunlight),” disenchantment is the point at which real and imagined spaces overlap:
Sunlight falls through the square window into the water of the inside pool and is reflected onto the blue wall above it. Ghost handkerchiefs, whiter at the folds. When I make a wave with my hand, they disperse, as in a blizzard, but soon, the fluttering squares return. I could say that when I’m gone, I’ll come back to you like this, talking to myself the way the soul does. If that is true, then whose soul is this?
The question points to how hard it is to know which places should be available to us and which ones are better for our not being a part. The natural world retains the permanent mark of a fold, a crease where we have encountered it. From this we might surmise that any reality rendered in text incurs injury from the process of being represented. Kwasny, whose work has been called “quiet” perhaps for its traces of Romanticism, shows affinity for the pastoral and the emotive fragment. But her work also suggests that what one envisions has potential to be more material than the natural world.
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The Nine Senses suggests that questions of belonging arise from our unwillingness to let go of our deepest affections. “Yellow Warbler” conveys how easily we can be misled by strong feelings:
Torn between the guides who lead us and those whose very being plumps the heart—our twins, our lovers. The spellings of angle and angel are often confused. You are setting it up so all of them can circle around the house. Act the species you will become in a different season.
A “different season” might be one in which we do not exist, but this lesson we cannot learn. “The Lights of Earth” poses a similar challenge, “What is it that the earth wants us to do? A nursery rhyme is what a sick child might recite to herself. Is it up to us to see she learns the verses?” Any answer is incorrect.
The speaker in “Shell” also suffers from strong feelings. She wants to exist and disappear at once, to experience the senses without a body:
As if we weren’t meant to be here, though here we are outside, loud-colored to the heron. Morbid, the idea of rubbing through one’s own skin, yet we yearn to stick our fingers inside. While the dead make their way through the custom lines. Shell: a quiet verb, slowed by its own sound, gull wings dipping over the clam beds.
If shell is a verb, then the action is closing off from the world while making a universe out of one’s own skin. In the poem “Bamboo,” the speaker laments her inability to hollow out, to vanish into the immaterial: “Bamboo grows straight, marrowless. Look, how we are bent and we have marrow.”
This wish to diminish in presence also functions as a refusal to cause discomfort. In “The City of Many Lovers,” we discover: “I am round. I have no edges. You can play with me. So can your dog. Then I crawl into an absence I have been remodeling all my life—a crockery, walls smoothed with warm water.” The speaker foresees herself as the endlessly yielding lover, “I have left my people behind and adopted yours. I imagine I have made this happen.” The speaker desires more engagement with the present than with fate or the past, though expectations for acknowledgment cloud the imagination with future disappointments.
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Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Kwasny’s work is in the way it brings attention to how much power the poet has in shaping perception. In the opening lines of the title poem, we are given a view of the start of day, as if all depth-of-field has been flattened by the eye of the speaker: “See how the morning light lies on the top planes of the Venetian blinds. And the tree, whole and shining, in the spaces between. Through the cracks, look. A simile, its little hinge.” From this point of view, the potential to re-open the conversation comes from less familiar ways of engaging:
The Sufis say the five senses are supplemented by four more. Curl of the living creek under the squabbling of birds, their breakfast talk, their famous comebacks. Taste of one’s tongue until there is coffee. Perhaps the extra four senses contribute to our sense of the surreal, as resolution of the real and the dream.
Throughout The Nine Senses, incidents of illumination occur outside of era or duration. Because of this lack of time-specificity, a personal urgency manifests instead of a historical one. The book’s refusal to be one thing or the other—not prose or poetry; not poetry or philosophy; not public or personal—represents the liminal spaces on which it reflects, those spaces at the threshold of sensation. While much of this book refutes the necessity of genre, a sense of frustration in one’s inability to be contained engenders its core tension. Kwasny’s poems are candid about the impossibility of removing oneself from one’s perception of the natural world, and her vision of this profound entanglement continues to be groundbreaking.