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Book Review Mark Ferrara
Assignation at Vanishing Point
Jane Satterfield
Elixir Press, ($13)

Jane Satterfield’s new collection of poetry, Assignation at Vanishing Point, leads the reader through labyrinths of temporal experience that intersect unpredictably. Drawing on such sources as The Akhmatova Journals, the rock group Velvet Underground, the painters de Morgan and Klimt, the Brontë’s novels, and the works Didorus Siculus and Tacitus, among others, Satterfield holds together the diverse themes of her poems adeptly through the exploration of mental experience.

The accounts of “ecstatic intoxication” in the poem “On the Circumference & Seized,” inspired by Thomas deQuincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater and Walter Benjamin’s Hashish in Marseilles, recreate hallucinatory experiences that come in “trances, impressions, and prismatic edges,” and evolve “like a great drama or a piece of music.” Yet the memories of these encounters remain “surprisingly clear” indicating the fleeting permanence of human experience lived on the fringes of consciousness.

In “Fugue,” Satterfield returns to the theme of the illusory nature of subjective experience. All of the poet’s attempts “to survey the whole in just proportions” are “just one more moment lost to history.” Like one wrapped in the waking slumber of darkest dream-filled nights, the poet knows intuitively:

        I wake and won’t
know where I am
                          some sense of place & all my attempts—
“ Not that, not there” & crackling in the wind,
the yellow caution sign…

This disorientation and inability to map human experience, to reduce it to a system or a history, leaves the poet feeling that “something’s lost or I’m losing—the wires pulled / the connection missed.” The existential abyss that opens with the rejection of mapping, of codifying, is traversed by embracing that very nothingness, the “Not that, not there.”

The poems “Metaphysical” and “Letter from Exile: On this Transitory World” shape the ambiguity of experience into religious feeling. In “Letter from Exile,” Satterfield asks the reader to

Learn from me, if you like, the unstable
the nature of wishes.
                         I came here
with my eyes open, not by some hazard of fate,
not the awareness of what I should gain and what
I should sacrifice…

She learns, like the author of Ecclesiastes, that “rustic pleasures, the meaning of friendship” become the “worthiest of all causes in this transitory world.” In “Metaphysical,” the poet’s inability to shape a story, to weave the narrative of human experience and history, leaves her sitting “still in this absence.” Once she “believed there was an escape in intelligence,” from the rationality that seeks to categorize, but exile becomes Satterfield’s metaphor for the peace that comes with relinquishing and absence. In “Letter from Exile: On the Origin of Souls,” she declares:

       Let others ascribe their peace to what they will…
Violent seas have swept me elsewhere.
Which must be, for the moment, my reply.

Satterfield transforms exile from a state of separation into one of necessity, as can be witnessed in “Letter from Exile: In Protest to a Friend”:

If indeed experience teaches us
you will name your “exile” more properly
shackles cast off with good cause
advancing starry eyed among
numberless cities and shores

This realization that individual experience forms an indisputable wholeness independent of the prerogatives of intelligence imparts an unusual poignancy and vitality to the new poems collected in Assignation at Vanishing Point.