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The Consolations of Strangeness

Jana Prikryl, Hudson Valley, New York, January 2016
Patrick Kelley
Jana Prikryl, Hudson Valley, New York, January 2016

There has been so much poetry written in the United States in the last thirty years that it has become difficult for even its most passionate readers, among whom I count myself, to pretend to have a broad, comprehensive view of the thousands of poems that have been published in books and literary magazines over that time. That was not always the case.

In the 1950s, American poetry was a small pond with a few big fish in it and others of various sizes swimming around them, so it was easy to see who was imitating whose moves, whose progeny were multiplying and whose were looking sickly. Of course, there were others too, sulking on the murky bottom of the pond and keeping their own counsel, but they were by and large invisible.

The Beat poets changed all that. They made such a splash that even high school kids were reading Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Thanks to their popularity, bars and coffee shops started having poetry readings, with colleges and universities following soon after, inviting other kinds of poets to read as well and offering them jobs to teach creative writing. Today, with thousands of graduates of writing programs publishing collections and still more graduating every year, it’s hard to believe that a book of poems can be completely original, but despite the great odds, it still happens.

Poetry is like an old clock that stops ticking from time to time and needs to be violently shaken to get it running again, and if that doesn’t do the trick, opened up and disassembled, its wheels cleaned, lubricated, and its intricate moving parts made to run again. Unlike watchmakers, poets repair their poems by leaving parts behind that after centuries of use have turned out to be unnecessary to their workings. Hard as it is to believe, lyric poets are still tinkering with a contraption thousands of years old, mending it and reinventing it with no desire to call it quits. As they do that, poetry keeps changing while remaining the same.

If that weren’t so, how could we still understand and enjoy the old Greek, Roman, and Chinese poems and recognize ourselves in them while knowing next to nothing about the world those poets lived in? Reading Jana Prikryl’s book, it crossed my mind that neither William Blake nor Emily Dickinson would have had much trouble making sense of this poem of hers:

THE MOTH

“New research suggests that butterflies and moths come with mental baggage…left over from their lives as larvae.”

—Science

He’d like to be at one with his new self
but memories sit in him like eyes.

Sometimes scent implies an unheard-of
idea and he’s off
but it’s just another of the given forms.

You’d think flight would be decent redress,
the power to sift himself through air
and leave each thought in its old place,
where hard feelings also could be left.

He shrugs and the wings
quiver with great precision,
nature will have to live with what it’s done,
he cannot manage even resignation
without a show of grace.

The work of a poet is a confluence of influences, either skillfully concealed, as Keats is in Stevens’s early poems, or plain to see, as Laforgue and some of his French contemporaries are in those written by Eliot in the first decades of the twentieth cenury. “The Moth” may remind us of other poems (I thought of Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”), but not in any obvious derivative way. Where does originality in poetry come from then? It comes from tinkering with some older poetic model. It comes from seeing its weaknesses along with its attractions. It comes from sober deliberation or from groping blindly in the dark. It comes from god-knows-what and only-the-devil knows. Some degree of irreverence is always involved. Kneeling before a masterpiece, as I once saw a man do before El Greco’s Christ on the Cross Adored by Two Donors in the Louvre, is not the way to go.

Jana Prikryl was born in Communist Czechoslovakia in the bleak industrial town of Ostrava, a few miles from the border of Poland. She was five years old when her parents feigned a semi-annual camping trip to the Dalmatian Coast, knowing that others had somehow fled through Yugoslavia. Instead they detoured to Zagreb, where they discovered they could get a four-day tourist visa to Austria and cross the border “legally,” though their passports were valid solely for travel to Yugoslavia, and they could be caught and sent home where her parents would be thrown in jail. They managed to slip through and eventually ended up in Canada. She received a BA from the University of Toronto and lived in Dublin before moving to New York, where she earned an MA in cultural criticism from New York University.

With so much travel in her life, it’s no wonder that the locations in her poems keep changing from country to country and that people we encounter in them often appear to be stateless. Though parents, siblings, husbands, and lovers are mentioned or alluded to, we often in fact have no idea who they are. Prikryl tells us little about them and their reasons for being where they are.

Reading some of her poems is like walking into a movie theater in the middle of a film one knows nothing about, trying to figure out what is happening on the screen, irked at first that the answer is not forthcoming, and gradually growing more and more entranced by the mystery of every face and every action, detached as they are from any context. Unlike poets who are eager to give their readers lengthy and detailed accounts of their private lives, she is discreet. She remains faithful to the ambiguity of our existence, that condition of being aware of the multiple meanings of everything we do or is done to us, and she’s wary of settling for one at the expense of the others and leaving the poetry that went along with them behind.

I first came across her name reading her essays on film and photography in The New York Review and The Nation and subsequently her poems in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and other prestigious publications. The After Party is her first book of poems. It’s divided into two parts, the first made up of thirty-two poems, some with intriguing and forbidding titles like “The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams,” “Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele,” and “It Doesn’t Work Out as I Read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida.” Here’s a poem with a simpler title, but with an intriguing plot:

ONTARIO GOTHIC

1.

The dwarf maple caught my attention
in an ominous way, its purple,
its deep purple leaves shredded gloves
that gesture “Don’t worry, don’t worry,”
among floating albino basketballs of hydrangea
among other things the people landscaped
like fake lashes round the top of the eye
that then all summer takes in clouds
and anything else passing over, including
one has to assume
the neutral look
on a passenger’s face glancing down from a window seat.

2.

Halfway there he squeezed between the shoulders of the seats
to join his wife and me in back. I need hardly tell you
what a stretch it was, wedging my arm between the driver’s seat and door
to steer with the tips of my fingers,
sidewalks in those parts just wide enough for a car.
Why he wanted me to take the wheel
I was too busy not getting us killed
to unravel; there was the traffic, a thing
coming at us with its mouth wide open, and in back
the two of them
whispered in their corner,
taking up very little space,
less than was right,
and then less and less, gasping at the joke he’d set in motion.

Poetry is as visual an art as are painting and the cinema. One reads poetry for the same reason one goes out for a drive, to see fresh sights. Images are bait, they trap our minds, revive some memory of our own, and get our imaginations working. Note how “the dwarf maple” the unidentified speaker notices in the first line of the poem is followed by a series of images, one more startling and disturbing than the last, from the purple leaves being shredded gloves and gesturing “Don’t worry,” to hydrangea flowers floating like albino basketballs, all unfolding in slow motion, culminating in plants landscaped like fake eyelashes around the top of the eye, and the disinterested look on a passenger’s face glancing down from a window seat—the kinds of things one may recall seeing in the moments before a car crash.

The second stanza complicates the plot. There appear to be three people in the car, two women in the back and the man who is driving (or are they stopped in traffic?) when he joins his wife in the back, leaving the narrator to get hold of the wheel and steer the car as best she can with the tips of her fingers while the other two squeeze into the corner beside her, whispering and making out, gasping at this farce the man has set in motion, while the traffic charges at them “with its mouth wide open.” By leaving out so many details, Prikryl invites her readers (as I did) to deduce the rest, because she wants to convey the feeling of everything occurring at once in a moment of panic, as it would to this woman struggling to keep the car on the road and not get herself and her passengers killed.

As for the “Gothic” in the title, it evokes, of course, the atmosphere of suspense and horror that permeates the stories in that genre. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that the situation in the poem is not just hair-raising but also side-splitting. The woman wedging her upper arm between the driver’s seat and door to steer the car with the tips of her fingers while her passengers are busy necking could have come out of one of Buster Keaton’s silent two-reelers.

Giorgio de Chirico: The Pink Tower, 1916
DeA Picture Library/Granger
Giorgio de Chirico: The Pink Tower, 1916

What makes Prikryl’s poems different is the way she subverts conventions by shuffling or leaving out entirely the chronology of events, blurring identities, cutting abruptly from one scene to another without explanation, and relying on the reader’s imagination to bridge these gaps. At first this may seem like a challenge one is not prepared to undertake in a poem, but after reading her for a while one gets the hang of it. Here’s another delightful poem of hers about a man scribbling notes to a woman at a funeral and making plans to meet her afterward.

A PLACE AS GOOD AS ANY

Outside the funeral of the politician who died young
I waited for you. Rolled in my hand like a baton

  were tissues from the mourners inside
that I was meant to throw away,

  a few with your scribbled notes to me.
How they’d found me in that crowd I couldn’t say,

  or if the bottle blond was your wife
or whether I had a husband.

We sat near enough to barter
knives and forks—the scraps of dinner theater

The blond was climbing into your lap,
Playing with the buttons on your jacket.

Then all of us rose and circulated, more like a whirlpool
than musical chairs. You on the far side of the banquet.

That’s when you wrote me those notes, one by one,
congealing into typescript in my hand.

At times I glanced toward your place
and we locked eyes like opponents in chess.

Your hair was still so thick and dark
I didn’t worry if I looked older.

When I waited for you outside, clutching the tissues
and pulling up tufts of grass, your friend’s shoulder

presented itself. He said you lived in this town
and couldn’t be seen leaving with me.

I nodded, ducking back into the paneled saloon
where he’d blacked out and was sprawled across linoleum.

He agreed to drive me to the film festival.
You’d be there in the dark with strange women and men,

absorbed in pictures more honest than these
if I ever found you again.

Reviewing books by and about Pauline Kael in The New York Review, Prikryl describes the film critic as being “drawn to comedy because it always finds shortcuts to the awful truth.” I think she believes that too. If “Ontario Gothic” verges on being a farce, this is a more subtle kind of humor, more about a hypothetical romantic entanglement than the possibility of a real car crash, more about an attempt to arrange an assignation between a man and woman at the funeral of a politician that has gone awry. Prikryl has an eye for satire. She watches people closely. This poem is like good gossip, full of delicious visual details. It has a tongue-in-cheek quality that reminds me of Dorothy Parker, the funny lady who once told someone: “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.”

Besides their mix of epochs, countries, and civilizations, the poems in The After Party differ widely from one another in the way they are written. If I were to list some of the finest poems in the book—“The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams,” “Siblings and Half Siblings,” “Inverted Poem for the Fluoride Ladies of Pleasant Valley School,” “The Tempest,” “Stanley Cavell Pauses on the Aventine,” “To Tell of Bodies Changed,” “New York New York,” and “Crackers”—I’d find it difficult to put my finger on what they have in common, except for a quality of attention, a presence of a probing intellect alert to the strangeness of our lives as well as our own estrangement from ourselves, and an eye “susceptible to the consolations/of analogy,” as she says in another poem. Here’s a sonnet that is as much about a pillow the poet sleeps on as it is about the statelessness they both share:

PILLOW

How solitary
and resolute you look in the morning.
A stoic in your cotton sleeve.
Do you dream of walking out

rain or shine
a truffle balanced on your sternum
and passing me on the sidewalk?
Or is that a smile

because you interpret nothing
and statelessness is where you live?
How calmly you indulge my moods.

See you tonight, by the sovereign chartreuse
ceramics at the Met.
Let’s hear what you’d do differently.

The loosely linked, short, untitled poems in the second part of The After Party have the shared title “Thirty Thousand Islands.” The name refers to thousands of islands in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron in Ontario, a well-known vacation spot in Canada, where these poems are set, an amazing place, as one discovers taking a tour of them on YouTube. As she says:

Here in the land Romanticism neglected
the Enlightenment passed by and planted
a shrub, a flag to flap and fling
the moon’s weather, should you
wish it confirmed.

These poems do not make up a true sequence, since except for one enigmatic figure—a foreigner with a taste for Parisian shirts and an interest in geology, who compulsively translates from one language to another, circles phrases in newspapers, lives on a houseboat, and whom the poet calls Mr. Dialect—there are no others. He appears in some of the poems making witty remarks on the landscape and the people, but disappears for long stretches from the sequence. For Prikryl, as for Fernando Pessoa, there is more than one poet inside her. Indeed, these poems are so different from the other ones in the first part of her book that it took me a while to get used to them and begin to relish their brevity and their laid-back quality. Here is what they are like:

The sky now kindling
for him alone at five
in the morning,
Mr. Dialect will rise
let’s say most days
(there are no others)
with an air of dressing
to breakfast beside
a caramel brunette,
her taste in shoes
unswervingly superb.
It’s not among
the things he learns
to tire of such blessings

*

At lunch he dives.
By way of aperitif he dives.
He dives for breakfast.

When you dive
the world pours up around you
continuously,

a ribbon of motion
defying end in
a tone that borders on arrogance.

Sounds and colors deepen
on their way to achieving
darkness and silence,
which keep receding.

A different situation however if
the entire time the thing
he was diving to reach
were diving just behind him.

This is occasional poetry at its best, relaxed, amusing, conveying the pleasure the poet took in each scene, while lounging in the shade of a big old tree (one imagines), jotting a few lines now and then in a small notebook, then perhaps dozing off and resuming writing the poem in bed late that night when everyone else was asleep. Goethe claimed this is the best kind of poem there is, reputedly using the naked back of the woman he slept with to scribble his verses on a sheet of paper. The old Japanese wrote brief, occasional poems, and so did the other ancients. “Do not ridicule the small./Little things can charm us all./Cupid was not big at all,” some unknown Greek said.

I’m sure these poems presented Prikryl with a huge problem in trying to figure out how to incorporate them into this book. Not that there are no short poems in the first part, but they are so different in tone and so unlike these little odes of idleness and beauty in “Thirty Thousand Islands.” “All the girls are lovely by the seaside” one of them begins, for example, quoting an old dance-hall tune. Interspersing these nostalgic poems about a lost paradise among the other ones in the book would not have worked.

Here’s the last poem in the sequence, as marvelous as so many others in this fine book:

The pines absorb the night, its themes and fabrics,
a lowering of blinds within blinds and glances perceiving glances,

till nothing of night remains in the air and the sky begins to demonstrate
again its essential property of flaring from all quarters

and all morning the pines sparely with a kind of jealous, pointed
attention unleash their reserves, granting each hour

before noon its cool underpinning and each pine
the work of expressing its individual silence