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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Paige Ackerson-Kiely's _ In No One’s Land _, reviewed by Karyna McGlynn

In No One’s Land
Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Ahsahta Press, 2007
ISBN 9780916272920
Paperback, 75 pages

Reviewed by Karyna McGlynn

Climbing Into Bed with Paige Ackerson-Kiely: A Review of In No One’s Land

One of the things that’s so startling about Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s debut collection is how effortless it is to climb into; it’s so well-made, comfortable and inviting, that it’s easy to miss, at first, how transgressive it actually is. The book is a love letter, yes, and a beautifully wrought one at that, but don’t imagine, reader, that you’ll come away without paper-cuts, for we are not mere bystanders in this unrequited epistle. We are intimately involved. This becomes more and more apparent as the book progresses.

Like all of Ahsahta Press’s books, the design here is gorgeous—this isn’t irrelevant; it’s how the book initially seduces us. When we peel back the vellum sheet that lays over the title page like fog, ice, or cigarette smoke, we are “In No One’s Land”—not the usual “no man’s land,” but no one’s—neither man’s nor woman’s—a domain of loneliness, thingness, and anonymity. This is further echoed in the book’s epigraph by Finnish-Swedish poet Bertel Gripenberg: “I intet land, hos ingren vill jag stanna” (“In no one’s land, with no one will I stay”). This phrase stands in white on the first instance of the storm-grey paper that wordlessly divides the book into its sections.

Behind the epigraph is the aptly-titled fronticepiece poem, “Foreplay,” in which we find ourselves placed alone, somewhat amnesic, on a motel bed:
You are sitting on the bed. The motel room is the color of breastmilk, nutritive water rinsing the palate of you. The sheets are not soft reminders of human forgiveness with their random tufts like father roughing up his boy’s hair; son you’ve made me proud. There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub.
The words are nice—breastmilk, nutritive water rinsing, sheets, soft reminders, tufts, forgiveness—but what they reveal about us is not so nice. There are sharp, hospital-corners on this prose poem. Something is wrong here. Leaning back into the bed may be “like curling into a giant yawn; pretty ambivalent shrug,” but…
Any minute now someone will push his way through the door and announce something. Dinner is served. The surgery was a great success. I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to come with us. Answer a few questions.
And just like that Ackerson-Kiely implicates us—thrusting us to the fore in her Hopper-esque investigation of the American landscape and psyche. We, too, are lonely, rumpled, sexy, sad and broken, as reflected in the very next poem “Instructional Lecture for a Liquor Store Clerk”—which starts out on a well-lit enough path, reminiscent of Lorrie Moore, or perhaps Miller Williams:
The customers want something from you that you do not own but in fact lord over. Let the older men call you baby or hon, it relaxes them…
But this can’t last. With Ackerson-Kiely, the familiar draws us in then twists swiftly out of recognition and into darkness, where it leads via a series of sparks:
There is a gun under the cash register but you won’t have to use it. In fact earlier, when I said lord over, I was speaking of benevolence. If you hit a doe with your car, and she crumpled into a ditch but her eyes were still open, her eyes open like a small child drawing a picture of dark roses, would you shoot her?
Pronouns are slippery here. “You,” for instance, is simultaneously the speaker referring to herself, the writer, the reader, the absent beloved, and the general “you,” which could be anybody. The effect is that we are forced to inhabit all these roles simultaneously—however, the abundant use of second-person isn’t as problematic as you might expect. Ackerson-Kiely tempers this notoriously tricky POV the way same way she does all the hobgoblins that threaten to topple the delicate balance of this book: with its opposite. “You” turns on its head, becoming “I” before the reader has recognized what happened. She’s remarkably adept with these transitions and juxtapositions. She destabilizes us, but does it so subtly, it’s seductive rather than jarring. We trust the poet all the more for the dexterity with which she manipulates the spine of the book—never losing or breaking it.

Over and over we see her parry soft with hard, round with pointy, feminine with masculine, sentiment with cynicism, the domestic with the esoteric, the urban with the pastoral. Every “Take me to the garden” is followed by a “Let me kill the livestock.” Yet Ackerson-Kiely is never glib. We don’t get the sense that she performs these quick-turns in order to shock or show-off. These poems are dark, smart, unexpected, and delightfully human, but they never display the willful quirkiness we’ve come to expect from much of the younger generation of poets. They’re never funny—even when they’re charming, inventive, joyful, and witty—because at their core exits heartbreak, world-weariness, and the knowledge of death. In this sense the book exhibits notes of Tessa Rumsey and Sarah Manguso.

There’s a newness to what Paige Ackerson-Kiely is doing here that goes beyond New Sincerity; it’s not about being post-ironic, or overly-earnest, or awesome to the max. It’s a sort of embarrassed confessionalism, or New Sentimentality: “I locked up all/of the beautiful things that might move me.” It’s aware of the unspoken rules against sentimentality, but it can’t help itself. The Good Ship Sentimentality has already set sail and all the hyper-aware speaker can do is occasionally voice her suspicions and negations. It works like a series of locks—giving framework and buoyancy to something that would otherwise sink—as in “On the Austerity of Autumn”:
It feels shitty, all this negating but I am quitting Romance—no estranged glances cast over the prow and the lake, just blue and ordinarily still lest we be swallowed and drowning lonely. That was the time I wanted to kiss someone deeply and it was forbidden…
and further along:
I am through painting lakes disguising green algae, through with nights meting out the unhavables, the insects multiplying symphonically in the yard. It would be impolite to say fucking. I won’t.
But she does! Many of the utterances in the book seem to come out against the speaker’s better judgment, creating a deep intimacy and empathy between speaker and reader. The trend in confident cynicism is broken. Ackerson-Kiely is apologetic in the best way. Her humility, originality and craftsmanship is such that it allows her to get away with things that might seem abrasive or self-pityingly emo in other hands:
The sky moaning,
put on a shirt and face me.

I know there are men in the distance.
They rustle as though braiding

Their wives’ fine hair.
I am an ugly woman.
The poem ends with one of Ackerson-Kiely’s trademark maneuvers: the juxtaposition of soft, feminine image with cold, hard realization:
The eyes of the horses

are wet as though nursed upon
and their long faces, clutched.

I will never marry.
This gets me.
This is how she gives us permission to re-enter the long-neglected realm of emotion in poetry. The book never becomes a guilty pleasure that you like in spite of itself. She’s already done that work for us. In No One’s Land is, in one, an invitation, intimate introduction, unrequited love letter, meditation on loneliness, and travelogue from the piquant mundanity of American thingness: lint, useless nickels, stolen electronics from Wal-Mart, empty refrigerators, unrented apartments. It doesn’t sound seductive, but it assuredly is. Every poem—be it wafer-thin and full of skittery syntax, or loaf-like and satisfying—is a multi-valanced study on hunger and desire in the contemporary world, and while this may seem like a recipe for heavy-handedness, Ackerson-Kiely’s poems feel effortless. Each is an impossible negligee, thrown off in passion and floating, weightless, all intricate lace-work and see-through parts—shockingly at odds with the dingy economy of the American stage, where, despite these surges of hopeful joy, we know…the all-night waitress is never going to land that big part.


Karyna McGlynn is the author of I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, winner of the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry from Sarabande Books. Her poems have appeared in Fence, Denver Quarterly, Octopus, POOL, Copper Nickel and Forklift, Ohio. Karyna is currently the Claridge Writer-in-Residence at Illinois College. She edits L4: The Journal of the New American Epigram with Adam Theriault.