(New York, NY: Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
I’ll confess, when Renée Ashley’s sixth full-length collection of poetry arrived in the mail, the title, The View from the Body, gave me pause. Body, body, body. More than enough poets, I thought, have explored the physical self to the point of exhaustion. Why more? Why bludgeon this barely recognizable equine cadaver yet again? I was startled, then, to find the poems in the first section of Ashley’s triptych of psychological and emotional curios defying nearly every expectation I had dragged along. On closer consideration, the title The View from the Body suggests a tenuous but thriving and observant inner life looking out from the frame of the physical, the proverbial genie-in-the-bottle, called consciousness by some, psychic energy by others. Ashley announces her obsession and goes for it with vigor and daring as the book’s sections unfold.
Fueled by a relentless exploration of format and effect, Ashley’s poems refreshingly turn the symbol of the body on its figurative head by offering glimpses of that inner life, both sparkling and disturbing by turns, as in the poem “Not What She Had in Mind,” where the body serves not as comfort but as a prison: “She is trying to get out of her body, / its strong tethers to the soil, its gravid / aspirations[…]” The poem’s strict tercets suggest neatness and closure, yet the speaker’s imagination courts contradiction: “the smallest open point / of absence ready to live easily in the world.” By this third poem in the collection, the threads of logic begin to fray against lines surgically constructed for just that effect.
Like so many other poems in The View from the Body, “Hammer and Nail” wields the free verse couplet with a relentless yoking that calls up Keats’s negative capability with each enjambment: “Head of both hammer and nail, / the blunt, blunt, blunt un- // attributable strike, an altered / line in the midst of the banging.” “She’s Losing Her High Notes” injects a sense of unsteadiness, of mental break: “Just having a little fall-apart. / Wrens bleat. Intellect’s a busted / berry.” Here and elsewhere, Ashley wisely relies on her immediate subject to inform her formal choices, and not the other way around as we see so often in many contemporary poems that tackle issues of both mental and physical health. Each poem forward in the first panel of Ashley’s collection follows suit, shifting points of view, altering patterns of punctuation and syntax, and always subdividing pairings of body and soul, self and world, reality and imagination.
A poem in sections that employs an interesting suspension of punctuation, “The Abduction of Mirrors” opens Ashley’s middle panel. The literal sense of each sentence is still visible – and audible – but the first section immediately calls logic into question, a perfectly placed move after the range of section one: “The music of the spheres, sometimes tinny / sometimes lush, not one thing or another. Not like you but you can / go there if you like you might like that.” The long flowing lines of “The Abduction of Mirrors” resemble the headlong, plunging audacity of the prose poem while retaining the limber visual ladder of the couplet. The poem’s third section, subtitled “What Is Given Leaves a Mark,” is subtly Biblical in a way that avoids direct symbolic referent in favor of half-shaded archetypal resemblances, such as the lines “Fruit / and its ruddy cheeks. Beyond the tree the fence.” Or later, where the poem’s collective we is “already culpable, standing in the red shade of the first / red tree.” This belies Ashley’s insistence on making the poem’s language (and not the subject matter) the focal point of the reader’s experience, an insistence that repays the attentive reader as the book unfurls.
The poem “Heat” offers yet another fresh approach to the dance between line and sentence. Using only capital letters to announce when some (not all) new units of language begin, and then interrupting these units with enjambments, “Heat” achieves a mutation of sprung rhythm that happens visually more than aurally: “Recess: two acres of yellow weed You // don’t hear the bell the plum tree draws bees[.]” “Pain,” on the page facing “Heat,” uses the same approach, and like the childhood recollections of “Heat,” develops variations on themes established earlier in the collection, this time the themes of emotional anguish and self-destruction: “Are all but persuaded to / say the word die you are so willing to die[.]”
More than the sections that precede it, the third panel of The View from the Body works with the subjects of memory, love, and childhood – all subjects that would be potentially toxic at the beginning of a volume, but are smartly placed at the end of Ashley’s collection. “Like a Child She Is Eating Noodles, She Is Eating Noodles Like a Child” does a brilliant job of capturing domestic canine behavior (“He thinks: noodle noodle noodle.” and “His fanned tail flashes. Out, now. His leg // has an aura of lifting.”) while also portraying a narrator at odds with the self’s irrational desires: “And here / she pauses. She says, Desire, oh desire, please, listen. This time go out.” As intentional as this pun is, it does nothing to detract from the sophisticated texture of the poem.
To contrast earlier stark titles such as “Trouble,” “Simple,” “Heat,” and “Pain,” Ashley unleashes, not without a certain giddy grandeur, some mammoth titles in section three, such as “The Poet, Who Has Yet to Identify that Third Person, Confuses Her Feminine Pronouns – and Then Discover It Doesn’t Matter Anyway Because, Despite All That Effort Not to Be, She Is Her Mother After All.” The poem weaves a dark, dreamy web of memory and hallucination associated with childhood residences and the death of the speaker’s parents: “Ghosts enter downstairs, wake her, wake / her. She lives here. She lives there. See? Looking right / at each: No one but me, one says. The other: No one.” Despite the hilarity of the poem’s title, its terrifyingly cold conclusion highlights Ashley’s knack for contrasting emotional and textural registers. In “Dust that Settles” the poet states “this mind is a bottle/of pills,” jumping right over the pitfalls of simile and metaphor to make a literal point about medication and the brain’s delicate chemistry, with perhaps the shadow of a parental death passing over the reader once more. “There Is,” the very last poem in the collection, confronts a dark and stirring finality that resonates back through the entire work: “nothing left to worship. / The three-tined sun is on a string. / A chain to hang you on. / A rope to coil when you’re done.” These starkly declarative and grammatically stunted lines provide yet another contrast with what has come before – as if the poet has said enough: back to the formal realities of punctuation, capitalization, and the emotional realities of isolation, instability, inevitability.
The phantoms of Sexton, Plath, Rich, and others all inform The View from the Body, but Ashley is operating in undiscovered country, pushing and probing what the line and sentence can do when called into question. Renée Ashley’s finely tuned sensibilities allow her to experiment with language and form without sacrificing meaning and beauty. It turns out the body – and the infinitely complicated self it contains – never runs out of territory.
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Daniel Rzicznek is the author of two poetry collections, Divination Machine (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2009) and Neck of the World (Utah State University Press, 2007), as well as four chapbooks, most recently Live Feeds (Epiphany Editions, 2015). His poems are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Volt, The Pinch, and Sonora Review. Also coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice (Rose Metal Press, 2010), Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University.