Reflections on Recent Poetry Part II

Read Part I here

The After Party by Jana Prikryl, Tim Duggan Books, $15.00

While Christain and Archambeau are poets of a kind of hyper-abundance, of Dionysian excess, Jana Prikryl’s first book, The After Party, offers us a study in the differentiation of reserve, in the mapping of distances both physical and emotional, linguistic and aesthetic. The poet stands apart, reflective, considering elements of her past, dividing and separating these elements with a remarkable clarity of vision. The emphasis on space, on separation, calls to mind Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance”, a vision of the sublime rooted in separation, in a sadness felt by “noble artist” as she considers the way her talent alienates her from the general mass of people. In these poems the pathos of distance rises not out of a sense of aristocratic superiority, but out of our recognition of the poet’s enormous capacity for self-awareness, for seeing limits, for seeing her own alienation in such clear relief. These poems have an element of tragedy, as they mark how even in overcoming separations, bridging gaps, fitting in by means of art, artifice, one always enters into a new perspective wherein other relations suddenly burst into view but so too do other absences, graver, perhaps untranscendable, abysses. In this way the pathos is not so much Nietzschean as Kafkan, derived from an experience of the impossibility of reaching the truth, the law, the past, etc. Despite this fatalism, there is simultaneously a playfulness at work in the volume, puns waiting to be discerned on every page, humor manifesting like steam from the edges of a crater. These pieces register the gulf, take stock of all that can yet be lost alongside all that has been lost already, and then proceed forward, reflective irony still intact even in the face of inevitable tragedy, inevitable oblivion.

of it is blotted burnt umber

for the hull, a scripted curve, as if color

bricked over and over

could send a sailboat blowing from the canvas as matter.

The writing here is so careful, so intricate, that on first reading it one almost misses the subtle reptition of “r” endings (this pattern continues throughout the entire poem in a virtuosic display of aural awareness and control). Prikryl moves from an objective description of the material of the painting to a consideration of its topic, from the vehicle (in this case a figural “sailboat”) to the tenor of the passage’s argument; her poem in a sense mimics the process of figuration it describes. Thus the “scripted curve” of the hull is in turn “scripted” again as it is brought into the poem as “matter”, drawn from the painting first as “blotted burnt umber” but then recognized as part of a pattern, something “bricked over and over”. This iteration for Prikryl signifies the effort of the painting to “blow” its subject into reality, that is, to compel, by some magic in its art, the image into reality. But of course this is also just a description of attempts at representation more generally as well; said another way: her description of the way this painting works mimics the way all paintings work. Just in these first few lines, she has invoked the tradition of ekphrastic writing and complicated it, drawing us into an awareness of our complicity in drawing out meaning from a work of art.


Prikryl also has an aphoristic side, as later in the same poem in commenting on the interrelation of love and art she offers us a comment worthy of Eliot or Browning: “To all the girls Bernini loved before / I’d say, caveat emptor.” This is a revision of sorts of Eliot’s “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” from “Prufrock”, but where Eliot’s passage mocks the triviality of the socialites who discuss Renaissance painting without feeling any of its real depth, Prikryl has inverted the gendered directionality of the barb, instead directing her raised eyebrow at an artist, Bernini, whose philandering indicates he is the perhaps the one possessed by the trivial, the women as much victims of their social position as victims of the artist’s false promises. These sharp words for Bernini put me in the frame of mind of Wallace Stevens, famous despiser of sculpture and sculptors, and Prikryl shares something of Stevens’s assurance; she is confident in her taste, in her choice of targets for mockery. Throughout the book, Prikryl advances a subtle feminist agenda, calling our attention to the gender imbalances present throughout so much of history in general, but artistic history in particular. In commenting on the poem’s origin in an interview with The Poetry Society of America, Prikryl explains that the painting’s subject, Claudia Quinta, was a maligned semi-legendary Roman woman who “redeemed” herself by dragging a large barge off of a sandbar in the Tiber. This woman’s plight strikes her as a synecdoche for the history of female artists: “…the more I looked at it, the more I felt for Claudia Quinta, immortalized so ineptly by a male artist who automatically enjoyed a thousand more opportunities than his average female peer—a predicament that happens to apply to most Western art, at least the art made before the last few decades.”


Prikryl is concerned with the question of identity, of how one fits, though in her case this question is posed more obliquely, with a particular focus on how one’s language fits; having emigrated from the Czech Republic to Canada as a young girl and then again to the United States as an adult, Prikryl is personally familiar with the triangulations of self that can occur in an individual trying to locate a precise center of gravity, linguistically, culturally, when existing among multiple milieus. One of the other axes on which the mood of these poems swings is that of grief: several of the pieces contain remembrances of Prikryl’s brother who died in 1995. This ties into the theme of identity, as the era before his death comes to take on a separate, ontological power that transcends both time and geography, as in “New Life”:

From the fields of a calendar, its snow
packed firmly into squares, I farmed you.
Following some paperwork you shipped west
and I flew home economy.
An interval like summer passed before a van found my house
and tilted you off the dolly.

The poem figures the sudden and unexpected return of the memory of her brother in terms of a kind of “customs exchange” occasioned by something as everyday as glancing at a calendar; the calendar is rendered a landscape, “snow / packed firmly into squares”, which recalls the description of the painting’s color as being “bricked over” in the previously cited poem. Her work abounds in this kind of geometry, drawing out further levels of order from within existing orders. The simple declarative, “I farmed you” adds a Georgic, Vergilian dimension; the retrieval of memory is like the growing of a crop within one’s mind and “New Life” serves as a recording of the process of that nurturing.


It is as though the memory of her brother has an existence separate from the events of his actual life, one that can be shipped across the ocean after the filing of “some paperwork”; the “interval like summer” in which she waits for its arrival has a double quality, suggesting not only that the time it took was as long as summer, but perhaps that it was also an interval-like summer, the summer itself having been subsumed wholly into its status as a period of waiting, reduced to a mere block, as in a calendar. Like the “bricks” she perceives in the painting, Prikryl has a way of compartmentalizing experiences, of drawing our attention to the significance of even our unconscious acts of demarcation. I associate this aspect of her poems with the way in which she looks to consolidate a variegated set of impressions into the sustained unity of an identity; how all people, but especially those of who have been compelled to emigrate and adjust to an alien culture, are forced to pick and choose which elements of the past to focus on, which to repress, as an act of imaginative survival.


After moving through a sequence of images that are figured as fresh experiences for this newly arrived plant-like life but that seem also to be the poet’s memories of her brother replayed, we arrive at a tangible hint as to what, exactly, is going on in this piece: “Your memory worked pretty well / considering the mirror time put to it.” The mirror here is the self, the way over a long duration we come to warp and mold our memories into narratives, telling ourselves a story about the past; this process invariably alters the empirical reality of what really occurred in most cases, and it can distort even things we intend to remember exactly as they were, but here Prikryl is struck by the fullness of this experience of memory in spite of the passage of time. Where she might have said “my memory of you” she instead uses the more ambiguous “your memory”, which conjures the idea of the person as still living, someone with a memory still recording experiences and details, and this plays back into the earlier figuration of a memory as living object to be “farmed”. Far from offering a sentimental account, or even a Proustian regression into nostalgia, “New Life” presents us with a conception of memory and loss that is incomplete, partial, and overwhelmingly strange.


The figure of her brother reappears in the book’s final section, the long poem, “Thirty Thousand Islands,” again marked for a linguistic difference, here dubbed “Mr. Dialect”. The poem is a travelogue, documenting an imagined place, a world in which her brother has lived on, an analogue, maybe, to the mythical Isles of the Blessed or the Elysian Fields, a world parallel to our own where the dead still awaken, inaccessible to us, but only until we inevitably join them:

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.

There are no other days, of course, because death is an endless sequence of bricks repeating, each day without someone, merely another demarcated interval of an absence that is and will be perpetual. But in the fantasy, Mr. Dialect is freed from the boredoms of the waking world, unable to learn to take happiness for granted, beginning each day afresh like those immortal warriors in Valhalla. With her ability to transcend nostalgia in the figuration of grief and her capacity to manufacture delight in the face of pain, Prikryl shows herself to be as subtle a charter of the emotional dimensions of loss as any contemporary writer. Her poems remind me finally, perhaps not so much of Eliot or Stevens, but of Coleridge with his exquisite sensitivities and honed capacities for learning and suffering. On delving into The After Party one discovers an imagination empirically grounded but invested with transcendental wit, an imagination that “By its own moods interprets, every where / Echo or mirror seeking of itself, / And makes a toy of Thought.”


For Prikryl the poetic book is a kind of mirror, but, taking a cue from Coleridge, it is more of an echo chamber, at least in the case of this book, with its interest in accents and dialects, in the shades and subtleties language is able to draw out through description. The echo is also an appropriate image because, as the title suggests, there is a kind of belatedness at play, a sense that these poems are the registry of a movement that is already over, that these are the residual soundings of old emotions, old experiences, not so much recollected as re-sounded, re-intoned. This gives the book a substantial feeling, despite its small physical size, as though these pieces have been carved out of a landscape by the vibration of sound, by the ringing out of language. But maybe this is too grand, and the book is better seen as what it is, a block, a piece like other pieces that only reveals its individual depths once one has ventured past the cover, beyond the title, and started to sound oneself out in the spaces created by the poems. Or maybe it’s another kind of rectangular block where voices might echo, a sarcophagus, a coffin, holding inside it the last vestiges of the dead. Coffin, mirror, echo chamber, whether one encounters it as a book or as an updated scroll on an electronic device, The After Party offers assurances that even in our late age of book making, works of singular linguistic strangeness and power are still emerging and will emerge.

Stu Watson is a writer, musician, and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is a founder and editor of Prelude.

Submit a comment