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Needto Know



Issue9: The Missing Body

Issue8: The Lily

Issue7: Passages

Issue6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Quan Barry

Cal Bedient

Joshua Bell

Nadia Colburn

Carolina Ebeid

Odysseas Elytis

Nathalie Handal

Connie Hershey

Timothy Liu

Drago Stambuk

Franz Wright

Convalescence At Its Best

Internal West
by Priscilla Becker 

64 pages. Zoo Press

by Adam L. Dressler

The deserving recipient of the 2000 Paris Review Prize in Poetry, Priscilla Becker’s “Internal West” is a stunning study in heartbreak and the struggle to heal. The poems are like quiet houses, constructed of straightforward language and streamlined structures, in which a spiritual violence takes root, blooms, and is examined as one would a cherished pet. The narrator’s relentless, inwardly probing voice is present throughout, honest and utterly credible, even in its most leaping assertions. This credibility is established, in part, through the voice’s seeming inability to contain itself; it is constantly, helplessly, letting things slip—but on purpose. This central, seductive paradox is never dull; Becker carries it out with all the colors of a vivisection.

The book’s first poem, “The Backyard,” is one of many post-love poems in which the examination of the self and of the past relationship are virtually indistinguishable. Here is the poem in full:

      One day the sky grows up and stops
      impressing us with blues and plots
      of light. That is how we know
      to come inside. The swamp grass
      waves itself away. I know the shallows
      of the lake like the rats know it, like the weeds.
      I may have been cheating on you then.
      Sometimes I sit in water until my body turns
      to lamb, until I’m certain I have something
      to care for. If the streetlights snap off
      when I walk beneath them, I’ll not heed
      to know that now, if the stars turn
      to other stars. How could you have known
      I’d love you much too late and long—
      the golden clover yellowed, wild
           mulberry overgrown.

The diction, with the sole possible exception of “heed” is down-to-earth, as is the majority of the form, the only exception being the beautifully indented, gorgeous last line, whose weight and magical import almost demand the different treatment it has received. The tonal confidence of the poem’s assertions, i.e., “That is how we know to come inside,” “I know the shallows of the lake like the rats know it,” “I sit in water until my body turns / to lamb,” etc., is achieved, in part, by the powerful line-breaks. They keep the reader surprised, off-balance, in need of the guidance the poet’s almost visible hand provides. “Trust us or you might fall,” these line-breaks say.

So when what would otherwise be a jarring turn comes, it does so quietly, matter-of-factly, and in its attempt to not surprise, to not show off, attains a level of undeniable truth. For example, “The swamp grass / waves itself away. I know the shallows / of the lake like the rats know it, like the weeds. / I may have been cheating on you then.” The first three lines are so peaceful, so lulling, that the fourth is unobtrusive. This calming effect is achieved here, as throughout the book, through simple diction, repetition (“know...know...know”), and delicate rhymes (“how...know...shallows,” “waves...away...lake...may,” “weeds...cheating”).

The use of “may,” in the seventh line, is at the heart of Ms. Becker’s style. This monosyllabic, off-handed nod to indeterminacy creates a stark distance between the narrator and her actions. This distancing, from facts and emotional consequences, has a chilling effect that deepens, ironically, to a point that demands the reader’s sympathy. For example, “Sometimes I sit in water until my body turns / to lamb, until I’m certain I have something / to care for. Here, the self is ultimately reduced, under the pressure of its own gaze, into an indeterminate object, a “something.” The “you” is also something other, more referent than person, more apostrophe than addressee. As the narrator of a later poem of the first section notes, “Please understand that when I say you / I might mean a number of things.” Thus, “Backyard” establishes the book’s central theme: the end of a romantic relationship, and the loss of self it inflicts upon the narrator and her vision.

This loss takes many forms, and the book’s deceptively simple structure can be deciphered, to a degree, by looking to the various losses as categories of suffering, as the common denominators the poems of the different sections share. The book has three sections: A.(40 pages), B.(12 pages), and A (12 pages). One might at first surmise that the sections’ pattern serves as a kind of structural rhyme scheme, with B. representing a variation and the second A. a return. But as always with Ms. Becker, it’s not that simple. The structure represents more of a process, a filtering of the first section through the second to create the third.

The poems of the first section, although emotionally distanced from the events of the relationship, are more scattered in their range of topics—they include childhood and reworked/newly invented fairly tales—and in their approaches than those of the other two sections. It is as if, still fresh from the pain of the breakup, the narrator is seeking various ways to approach it. Often, a hard-as-nails, biting voice surfaces, such as in the last stanza of “Preparing for Export”:

      You see this life is lived
      on the premise that it is worth living it.
      Someone said tonight you can’t ignore
      the twentieth century
      Watch me.

At other times, vulnerabilities are readily admitted, such as in the first lines of “Reformed Cloud Watcher”:

      It would probably hurt to tell you now
      I pretended about clouds.

      It’s funny how the same things seen
      two separate times can do a kind of trick,
      as if our eyes could see so many ways
      or we ourselves were never twice the same.

In section B., time has moved on and has become a central motif, as evidenced by titles such as “Much Later and Very Far Away,” “Foreverness,” “Until Such Time As,” “Later Still,” and “Things I have Decided Since.” Gone are the poems that go over a page, gone the few that treat childhood. All of this section's poems, all brief, deal with the self, the “you,” or both, without exception. But while the passage of time may have given the narrator a more concentrated vision, it has brought no cease of suffering. These poems are filled with the heartbreak of ill communication, of the poor substitute language is for the real thing. As she writes in “Until Such Time As,” “And sometimes a face will lose its name / or word replace a figure or feeling.” The failure of language is this section’s sub-theme, and it works to brilliant, if brutal effect: here, writing isn't therapeutic; it’s like picking a scab. And this action is very much like the motion between the section’s poems; whenever there is an ending note of peacefulness or something even approaching healing, it is disrupted by the next poem. For example, “Until Such Time As” continues, and ends, with the lines:

      And I don’t think I look so long
      down corridors and avenues
      at backs of heads, retreating shoes
      or hold my finger in the air
      as though I were meaning to say.

      Also I don’t torture myself with talk
      and pictures and calling it to mind.

      It is a kind of middle feeling
      like evening
      from a train.

It’s the old contradiction: if she were “over it,” would she still be talking about it so much? As if to remove any doubt, she quickly dispels this “middle feeling” with the direct, depressing opening of the next poem, “Overture To An Hallucination”:

      Six years have gone since I have been loved
      by you. All appearances have been more or less
      phantom. There is a boy now applying for your job.
      He does not know this. Nor does he know how narrowly
      he fills your ghost.

Although section B.’s motifs of time and failed language are carried into the book’s final section, their presence is softened somewhat by the resurfacing of the childhood and fairy-tale motifs of the first. To, or through, these motifs of the other two sections, the third adds, though almost grudgingly, moments of emotional connection between the narrator and her past actions in the relationship. For the first time, she is willing to entertain (if only through the filter of a third-person fairy-tale) some remorse. In “Late Summer Express and Star,” she says:

      Perhaps she is sorry.
      She might well be sorry. In such cases,
      you will come to find out, there is never
             an audible cry.

What an elegant allusion to the reticence and emotional detachment of the first two sections! This thawing, however slight, seems to allow the narrator some small sense of closure and healing. This culminates in the section’s and book’s final poem, “If You Think It Takes Longer,” which seems to address a new, and very present “you,” perhaps a new lover, who represents a definite shift from the phantom that has shadowed her thus far:

      These twisted trees so like
      your body, and artificial light
      so like your eyes, you may not

      trust this as a compliment.
      I did not mean to be here so long
      or ever at night. I never knew

      that clouds could look so much
      like the hood of the world, and cold
      buildings begin to glow

      like cement-enclosed unstoppable
      hearts. You may have tried to warn me
      these bare sticks could make me

      warm enough, and lamps put on
      a version of what shone. It could be
      I’m that unloyal, or I went out

      oddly trackless in the snow.
      I asked myself at slowly slower
      interval. What I mean is I am home.

This is still a far cry from strolling hand in hand through fields of daisies, or an unbridled declaration of undying love. But a happier or more hopeful poem wouldn’t be desirable, much less credible; it would be a fluke, a cheap Las Vegas mirage in the very real, very stark landscape of the book.

The strength of this poem, like all those of “Internal West,” lies in the narrator’s ability to hold herself up to her own relentless gaze. One can only hope that Ms. Becker’s own powerful vision will not be dulled by her well-earned acclaim, and that her other books will hold themselves to the high standard this debut has set.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has ridden the economic wave from dot come to dot gone, and in the fall will be attending the MA program in poetry at Boston University.