Book Review: PICTOGRAPH by Melissa Kwasny
Poems by Melissa Kwasny
|Milkweed Editions, 2015
While reading the prose poems in Melissa Kwasny’s Pictograph, I was often reminded of Andrew Grace’s most recent effort, Sancta, another book of prose poems set in a specific natural place. Whereas Sancta sticks to a strict word count of seventy words, Pictograph’s poems tend to hover closer to around two hundred words. In this way, Pictograph sacrifices some terseness for narrative and imagistic depth. I’ll be honest, I found it hard to settle into a method of reading the poems in Pictograph at first. Because the titles of the pieces often begin with the same word, the images are sometimes stacked upon each other, and the poems look so similar page to page, it is easy to enter into a sort of trance wherein the work begins to lose its magic. I found that reading and savoring one poem at a time in a quiet space was the preferred method for enjoying Kwansy. This says something about the importance of ritual in this book—that the poems require the reader to enter into a meditation with Kwasny, to focus on a now in which we are simultaneously “Always interfering with something sacred still going on” and a now in which we are tracing “A fading language that might be bridge to our existence here.” Pictograph required me to pause, to consider the rhetoric of the natural world and contemplate the sometimes vast and sometimes diminishing space between humanity and the earth.
It was during my break at work today that I revisited the poem “The Sentience of Rocks.” This poem from the first section of Pictograph captures what I most enjoyed about Kwasny’s book—both the intimate personal details addressed from speaker to reader, and the larger meditations on place and our transient relationship with it. She writes, “As we age, we drape less…Suddenly, we have microscopes for eyes.” The humor is disarming and welcomed. “Surely, we will be given time to explore the diverticula of the heart,” she continues. A lesser poet would not be able to write a line like this and have it stick, but the wisdom and effortlessness of the poetry—specifically the word “diverticula”—somehow sheds new insight into a tired concept. Rhetorical questions like “What is form but the reigning in of desire?” and then later, “Do our dreams prepare us for our eventual deaths?” also run a risk—that of pretension or philosophical meandering—but the space of the poem is perfectly crafted for meditation, and the questions are expansive there. I looked up after disappearing within the poem, and I had overshot my break time by fifteen minutes.
What is masterful about Kwasny’s book is that it consistently surprises. The prose poem form suits her style perfectly; peppered through the stone of the text are seams of coal, diamond. Polished images, philosophical questions, and personal quips, wind together in descriptive passages and narrative stretches. There is also compressed emotion coupled with compressed syntax. The poem “Counting the Senses,” which I believe to be the strongest poem in the collection, illustrates this well. I want to transcribe the whole poem here, but these lines will suffice:
To sense in ever-refined levels the dissipating cloud-layers of oneself, what Ezra Pound named an “aristocracy of emotion.” In the spruce copse near the confluence, you left your hair. Last night, we played Scrabble. My first word was divine. You added an s to it, doubling your score. In this very room, fourteen years ago, you turned over and found the lump. Your hand rose to it, as if guided by a sense of love.
Every sentence here contains a left turn, a brilliant shock. Not listed here are the previous infinitive phrases that further detail the senses, but the final one listed here is a succinct and powerful image, one that truly honors Pound’s belief that writers should treat their subjects directly and use no superfluous word. The next sentence introduces a new player in the narrative—one who leaves behind their hair in the spruce copse. Then, the commonplace game of Scrabble sears to life with the word divine and divines. And finally the hand rising to meet the lump “as if guided by a sense of love.” There is something so powerful about this, about the love extended to this seemingly awful thing—the uncertainty and curiosity of that first touch—that reaches out far beyond the page.
Pictograph captures the poetry of Annie Dillard’s masterwork, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is truly the highest praise I know how to give. This is a deeply spiritual book of well-crafted poetry. When the speaker asks in “Past Life with Wooly Mammoth,” “How can the soul’s memory remember this?,” I want to answer, “Because it’s such enduring, damn good poetry.” I will remember these life-affirming poems for some time, and any reader of poetry would do well to commit these poems to memory as well.