Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: Lissa Kiernan's Two Faint Lines In the Violet

Poetry books come and go, but Two Faint Lines In The Violet is a collection that should always stay.  Lissa Kiernan is someone I have known and workshopped with for years; and for years I urged her to publish, even as she demurred and returned--with a patience and meticulous devotion that I have never seen paralleled--to a regimen of editing and selecting, girded in a brilliant poet’s quest for consummate attainment.  Whereas someone like me would argue that you can approach, in the manner of an asymptote, a state of perfection, but only with lessening gains and then fruitless ire, Kiernan struggled, refashioned, and re-evaluated onward.  Through her persistence, I am happy to say, she effectively destroyed my case.  She hurdled the asymptote to overcome its blithe logic.  I fully admit now that I was wrong to press her to publish sooner.  Not because her poems weren’t wonderful then; but rather because she has accomplished a feat at first glance surreal and yet ringing with sonorous truth:  she made the asymptote touch the line of unmitigated excellence.

Kiernan has achieved a blend of fine concern for minute textures with a lush voice, a voice tended by fabulous varieties and a head-swirling vocabulary.  A handful of laced themes pillar the book, and yet the lines sojourn off on fresh searches of their own.  In a mysterious fusion of unjoinable elements,  Kiernan provides the rarefaction suggested by the ascetic title--“two lines in the violet”--and yet also a gritty abundance.  Nature is represented from myriad angles even while few if any of the poems are nature poems:

At first, you could still navigate the car to Avery’s store,
ignore the occasional synapse that, like an errant green

tendril, misfired.  Could hide the diminishing consensus
of your right and left halves, the querulous logic, incessant

chattering, like a beaver’s teeth on a half-drowned log,
or the scattering of some furred creature’s claws

(From “Mud Season”)

This poem is one of many that latch us into Kiernan’s bond with her father (and to a lesser extent, her mother), particularly as his mind faltered, gradually shifting the chemistry of the relationship.  She is a master of literature as prism, one through which this poignant downslope hosts many paths of mottled light.  Through metaphor and juxtaposition, Kiernan pulls our hearts into the trails of conceptual linkages, leading us on a withering journey--as if up and down uncertain yet panoramic arches of emotion--into her intimate familial realm:

Last night, my father stood on the threshold.
By the door hung a thin slab of slate.
He pointed.  I told him:

Mom put that there.
Mom bought that.
That belongs to Mom.

The slate was painted.  A chickadee
in winter--snowflakes throbbed in a star-
darkled sky.  Insolent beak, passerine feet

(From “Chickadee”)

Early on, the brain tumor that afflicts her father is linked to a sinister nemesis:  the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, in particular its effects on the environment and the health of all it touches through various covert yet indelible tendrils.  In one poem, Kiernan intersperses a Mother Goose rhyme through a stark, mechanical description of the facility, sewing the lineal and the techno-political together in devastating ways.

Yankee’s decommissioning is not the death of its poison, nor of its stranglehold on the social surrounds.  Ominous precision from the poet provides a frightening two-way autopsy:

But each pipe, seal, and bearing must be mourned
and laid to rest.  Make no mistake--
for each method a cost.  Whether to store it dry or wet

addles your brain.  Odds for cross-contamination
curdle your spleen.  Perhaps we ought not place blame.
Go on.  Bury it.  As quickly and quietly as you can.

Dump it in dark trenches in towns with jowled porches
and slow-swaying stoplights.  Mottling a river--
with no will left to say no.

(From “Eclogue on Decommissioning”)

Despite her sharp condemnation of mismanaged fissioning, and the arrogant attitude that humans are ready to tamper with such things, Kiernan’s primary focus, with steadfast ardor, remains her father.  In fact, I have never seen a poetry collection that so carefully and completely examines any aspect of family life, even less one that takes a trajectory with so many fraught wings.  Page after soaring, plummeting page, with the weight of a tear-burned diary, Kiernan shows us phases of the decline, each differently evocative.  Each poem takes the previous poem’s muse and wrenches its anguish, as if a single heart were the reshaped clay of a hurt sculptor’s craft.  The encompassing quality of the writing insures that we are in the room as Kiernan confronts the terrible within the greater terrible:

... I wiped you clean tonight, raddled

hands roughing your bedsored flesh, I sought out all
the folds.  You, shamed numb by what you called accident,

buckled on your side, facing the wall.  But to me,
it was just another incident in what has become

routine:  this morning like last evening like tomorrow
afternoon ...

(from, “Riven”)

Through a series of absolutely moving poems, which approach, dive, and travel beyond her father’s death--poems that together, I think, form a special stellar space within an already sublime firmament--Kiernan catapults us into the second half of the book, which branches broadly through her history, her marriage, various reflections, and also special moments in Brooklyn.  Many of these trend dark or cynical, though not in any simple way; and it is impossible not to see this slant in relation to the first half, where the epigraphs, one supplying the book’s title, foreshadow a radioactive trinity between daughter, father and decay.

Many fine-tuned yet luxurious treats of wordplay await the reader here.  Despite an oracular look at reality, the lines often frolic or swashbuckle.  Sometimes the poems themselves are playful, as in “The Craft” (Real Wiccans are crated from other real Wiccans,/Don’t waste time wondering about the chicken-/and-egg situation./It doesn’t apply to covens.)  Or in Kiernan’s dark-swinging-to-light embrace of her city of residence:

How long have I breathed in your feral gardens, fermented tunnels,
sweat-licked shores?  Your natives sulk over the Immigration Act,

but which of them would not give me--in the blur of a vanishing R
train--the salt off their skin?  Breuckelen.  You’re a Dutch oven

(from “Dear Brooklyn”)

Given the mantle of saturnine clouds I myself wear as a bard, it is perhaps inevitable that I am drawn to the cutting yet generative aspect of Kiernan’s poetry, where she takes a deep breath of courage and builds voice in the doldrums of silence our society perpetuates:

Later, at the shrink’s, I won’t speak of the dwindling

life cupped between my thighs, but grin grimly, allow
I don’t care for the latest pill.  Makes me flat
as men, one-dimensional, a balloon without air.
Let go my string and let’s just say I would not rise

impossibly round, pink, and weave, giddy as a burp,
between the Chrysler’s glittering gargoyles.
But the body?  It’s resourceful.  I knuckle
that lipstick, jab on my old mouth.  Make a fist.

(From “Commute With Plath”)

Troubled dynamics of broken relationships provide a riveting archipelago of discrete foci among the variety of the poems:

Obnoxious holiday, I muttered, but the words
would not even be mine.  Meanwhile, I was so tired
from being beautiful and right!  Ironing lingerie?

And nothing quite like steak.  Instead, I buy you a keg.
At love’s last gasp, nothing is often the best thing to say
and nothing says I love you quite like beer.

(from “Apathy and Valentine’s Day”)

Ultimately, I cannot adequately convey the versatile range of this oeuvre.  “Census” is an apt series of stinging questions.  “Five Easy Pieces,” complete with roman numerals, haunt with their cameos of violence, sex and awe--and are not at all easy.  You will find surprises I have not mentioned, which add subtle yet symbiotic flavors.  Throughout the book, a picaresque sarcasm changes cloaks.  Sometimes, with a final chuckle, it plummets into abysmal yet steeling fire.  There is a strong influence of Plath, but Kiernan is not similarly damned.  Lament never overcomes the vulnerable warmth that connects the reader magnetically to her tender self-revelations and pained exposés.

If you can read a book by someone you never met, and thereby feel less isolated--touched in chambers of your being that you never thought to share--does it not, with robust delight, regenerate?  This, through the magic of immeasurable writing, is what you can expect when you meet with Kiernan, walk beside her, twixt the two violet lines.


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