So far, 2016 has been the year of podcasts. I’ve been particularly obsessed with “The New Yorker: Poetry.” The way the podcast is structured is absolutely lovely. First, a contemporary poet picks a poem from The New Yorker‘s archives to read and discuss. Next, the poet reads one of his/her own poems and discusses this as well. The new poems read are generally the ones appearing in a recent issue of New Yorker.
On June 15, I listened to Jana Prikryl Reads Anne Carson. I picked this episode because I like Anne Carson, and I was eager to hear more about other people’s analysis of her work. I must admit that sometimes I stop listening after the first half of the podcast, when the often-unknown poet begins to read her own work. I wasn’t expecting that I’d actually be intrigued and interested in the poem that Jana Prikryl had to share. After listening to the podcast, I spent some time Googling Jana and reading a few snippets of her interviews and poems. I snatched up a copy of The After Party as soon as I saw it online.
On the scale of physical to metaphysical, Jana Prikryl is definitely a very cerebral poet. My favorite poets work in both realms, mixing personal details with mythology (see Louise Gluck’s “Averno”, Jack Gilbert’s “The Great Fires.”) I don’t think that Prikryl is quite there yet, although from some of her interviews, I believe she is trying to create ties between her mental exercises and her personal experiences. For the people out there that say they just “don’t get” poetry, well, first I’d say — but not all poetry is dense and pretentious and difficult! And second, I’d say, this book is probably not for you. She is a poet’s poet — she is also an editor of the NYRB and has a Master’s degree in “cultural criticism.” Prikryl’s first collection of poems are hard work, but they can also be joyful and rewarding. I think she shines best when she is writing about nature. One of my favorite poems is “The Moth” which was inspired by something she read in Science magazine that says “New research suggests that butterflies and moths come with mental baggage… left over from their lives as larvae.” The resulting poem is evocative and does play between literal and metaphorical. Another one of my favorite lines is the opening lines of “Argus, or Fear of Flying” which starts:
A seagull at home in this valley steps into air
above the river. I’d like to follow
it holding the wind to account while flinging
itself out into it.
Each of her poems are clever and require a great amount of puzzling and pondering to fully understand. At times, I had to set the book aside out of exhaustion, and while there are still many verses that I do not comprehend, for me the joy comes from unearthing another layer of meaning and gleaning new facts through reading interviews and essays written about Prikryl. She intersperses short, light-hearted poems regularly throughout the first half (there are a total of 6, and they all have similar names: Tumbler, Timepiece, Titoism, Tumbril, Tumblehome, Tombolo.) These were a nice palate-cleanser between some of the denser poems, but still playfully provocative. Here’s “Tombolo:”
To keep them safe in time
of war we evacuated our hopes
to this island made of sand
dredged from the ocean floor thanks
to the moon’s land grabs and
remain calm if the ocean floor
under sway of the same moon
collects itself like an orator, forming
ways to talk about our island
until it quarantines no hope anymore,
young foreigners walking in and out
placing carnations and each one removing
a small stone.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the structure of this small book. The book is divided into two — the first half are just poems, not necessarily linked or connected together, and the second half is called “Thirty Thousand Islands,” which consists of forty linked, untitled poems. Part of what became “Thirty Thousand Islands” is what I heard Prikryl read for The New Yorker podcast. These poems revolve around someone named Mr. Dialect and the islands are based on the shores of Lake Huron in Canada. I’ll provide a link below to some longer extracts of her poems, but my favorites revolve around describing small moments. If you do read this collection, I’d recommend reading the poems out loud, as you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many poems rhyme in unexpected places.
I’d recommend this book to fans of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” to people who always look up words they don’t know in the dictionary, and to adventurous readers.
- I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I would have read this book anyway.
- Listen to Jana Prikryl read a version of Thirty Thousand Islands
- The Paris Review interviews Jana Prikryl
- Thirty Thousand Islands in The New Yorker
- Listen to The New Yorker: Poetry Podcast (including the Prikryl episode I was inspired by!)
- Buy the book here
- I used a Prikryl poem in one of my painting-poetry pairings a few weeks ago — A Pairing: Jana Prikryl + Benvenuto Tisi