'Here at the midpoint of my life'
A review of Kerri Webster's 'Lapis' and Jana Prikryl's 'Midwood'
At first glance, Kerri Webster’s lyrical, lushly allusive Lapis and Jana Prikryl’s restrained, architectural Midwood make unlikely interlocutors — but both these 2022 collections situate themselves in the selva oscura of midlife and conduct their readers across the rough ground of fresh grief and ambiguous loss. Reading these two collections in dialogue offers a rich yield. In their passionate attention to the unmarked rituals of the quotidian, Webster and Prikryl can each be understood to seek out — through very distinct poetic operations and formal strategies — answers for a question Webster poses midway through Lapis: “If grief is / transfiguration, what are we / after?”
Each poet’s previously published work has been described in terms of the elegiac and the visionary. Lapis is Webster’s fourth collection of poems, following The Trailhead (2018), a spacious and sometimes esoteric meditation on embodiment that is as attentive to the complexities of sexuality as it is to place and landscape, and Grand & Arsenal (2012), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Midwood is Prikryl’s third collection. Her second, No Matter (2019), eulogizes mentors like Robert B. Silvers and Ellen Willis; her debut, The After Party (2016), is dedicated to the brother she lost in 1995.
That the opening poems of both Midwood and Lapis should appear to launch themselves into the newly reverberant silence of an “after,” or aftermath, seems no coincidence. Although the COVID-19 pandemic figures only obliquely in Lapis and Midwood, its cumulative effects and aftershocks nevertheless make themselves felt in both Prikryl and Webster’s poems. “First Voice,” the opening poem in Midwood, evokes the unaccustomed isolation of lockdown, with a speaker who lies “fetal as an ear on the bed” and tries “to feel / the dusty blue rhomboid of window being the vanguard of twilight every second.” Similarly, the “first voice” of Lapis similarly evokes an absence. Titled with a line from Alice Notley’s “World’s Bliss” (“oh each poet’s a / beautiful human girl who must die”), this opening poem begins with the question: “and then where did her words go?” (1). Webster and Prikryl each explore the tender interleaving of personal grief with the shared tragedy of the still-unfolding crisis of our moment.
Of Midwood, Prikryl suggests in an interview with McSweeney’s that her book’s title is both a riff on the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno and a reference to her Brooklyn neighborhood, bordered by a “wooded, littered ravine.” Prikryl trains her acute attention on this marginal thicket of urban trees. Just as No Matter was carried along the current of a series of poems called “Waves” (each offering a luminous, riverine perspective on Manhattan), a set of twenty-four poems entitled “Midwood” becomes this collection’s spine — or trunk. A pattern of recurring preoccupations branches off from Prikryl’s carefully observed sequence.
If Prikryl explores the way loss and longing quietly permeate and unsettle the ordinary time of midlife, Webster’s Lapis delves deeply into the way tragedy’s undertow seems to compel a sacralization of the everyday. Near the outset of Lapis, the poet declares, “To be secular is ostensibly to be ritual-starved, yet how many times have I seen a woman manifest a ceremony for a given occasion?” (9). Webster’s poems mourn the deaths of three women close to her: her mother and the poets Jane Mead and Marni Ludwig. Mead was a mentor; Ludwig, a student and friend. These intergenerational bonds are scrambled and distorted by lives cut short. In an interview, Webster remarks, “I had a strong sense for the first time in my life of living with the dead, of living in community and communication with the dead.”
Lapis, Webster’s title, evokes that community of the dead by alluding to traces of an ancient sisterhood. Archaeologists have detected traces of lapis lazuli, a rare and toxic mineral ingredient of the pigment ultramarine, in the teeth of medieval nuns — evidence for reimagining their role in the making and transmission of knowledge through the production of illuminated manuscripts, perhaps wetting or shaping their brushes with their mouths as they painted. Webster acknowledges that the practice of writing about grief can become addictive or (like the production of these sacred, medieval manuscripts) toxic, “a numbing almost — that keeps you from … feeling the grief itself.” This antinomy speaks to the dialectical tension bound up in the very act of writing, which Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, calls a “pharmakon” — poison and cure in one. Writing becomes a potent medicine that may conduce to either memory or forgetfulness.
Webster’s poems take the form of spells (as in “The Dead Teach Me Grounding Techniques”), snares (like the “lark mirror,” which, in “Split,” evokes a long tradition of the poem as sleight-of-hand), and prayers. The visionary poetics of Lapis upend the notion of a shared, secular consensus, revealing death’s capacity to transfigure; to render “God-struck” (13). Like the sacred manuscripts labored-over by medieval nuns, Webster’s language is richly illuminated. Images of owls, larks, and honeybees accompany the poet’s mourning as she seeks a ritual practice for her grief — a willed, even longed-for katabasis. “And if you don’t think the body can be its own psychopomp, well,” the poet remarks mordantly in “So Many Worlds, So Much to Do,” the long, diaristic poem at the heart of the collection (55).
The willful, incantatory power of Webster’s poetic voice stands in sharp contrast to Prikryl’s more austere method. In Midwood, patient practices of looking may only occasionally give way to dreamlike visitations, as when, Prikryl writes, “a tree capered toward me as a person” (92). This benevolent arboreal presence (a dryad?) freely offers up a revelation that hints at the essential resemblance between the poet and her subject: “this is what they are, like me / annoying strivers / in constant danger of making bad choices/under cover of an impishness that can’t be enlarged, / examined too closely” (92). Prikryl is preoccupied with what the poet’s “bad choices” might risk — or realize. Writing poems based on dreams, for instance, is “obviously a ‘bad idea’ aesthetically,” she quips in an interview, but many of Midwood’s poems materialize this way. In a poem called “The Ruins,” Prikryl’s lyric method gains definition in a metapoetic moment: “the lines may stand / if I remove myself, my will ruins it / [...] I wait for it though waiting / can be a mistake that generates willfulness” (67). Lines like these candidly reveal the link between Prikryl’s carefully modulated strategies of attention and her vision of language as a delicate edifice.
Elsewhere, indeed, she writes, “The problem feels almost spatial this morning / [...] / — but by ‘spatial’ I meant here with you on the page” (88). Prikryl’s restrained poetics glances sidelong at a lyricism that slowly does make its way out of the “wordless but voluble” quietness that presides over the whole collection and “comes right up to you to take a look” (26) — much like the trees themselves, in their ordinariness. Midwood asks what mode of vision can account for the trees’ durable, almost unnoticeable presence. If the lyricism of the “Midwood” sequence anchors Prikryl’s poems to the cyclical and the seasonal, it does so only obliquely. These natural rhythms remain, in many ways, incidental to the unfolding dailiness (and nightliness) of the habits and dreams recorded here.
Midwood captures a series of ordinary experiences — of marriage, of living through lockdown, of miscarriage, of caring for a small child — but Prikryl’s central preoccupation is experience itself. In “Midwood 24,” a catalog of unfinished sentences buds from the word “experience” like a crown of branches: “experience / thanks to poems, plays you don’t live to / what you have’s an / of the tree” (110). Prikryl’s poetics of spatiality and attention supply the insight that the visionary instant — always present, unheard, unmarked, and on the verge of slipping away — is something upon which the poet can triangulate. Prikryl’s poetics approach what Maurice Blanchot calls “everyday speech” — “that unspeaking speech that is the soft human murmuring in us and around us.” Midwood’s revelation that this register is made persistently available in poetic language is surely as striking and profound as the depths and heights of Lapis’s visionary modes.
Though Webster does usually seem to posit the visionary and the lyrical in terms of verticality (lightning-flash irruptions, like Wordsworthian spots of time; vertiginous descents into the underworld), Lapis also makes a startling offering of the obverse of this poetics in the long poem, “So Many Worlds, So Much to Do.” Its title borrows a line from Tennyson’s famous elegy, In Memoriam A. H. H., and its contents and form echo Jane Mead’s The World of Made and Unmade: A Poem (2016), written as she cared for her dying mother. “So Many Worlds” stringently reveals the labor of care — the death-work — that undergirds each visionary act, reminding us that, even in Wordsworth’s Prelude, “what / comes before the doctrine of / spots of time is a drowned / body; what comes after is a / hanged body” (59). Unfolding in twenty-eight brief, discontinuous stanzas that accumulate iteratively rather than figuratively, “So Many Worlds” logs grief’s dailiness in plain language.
The poetic register of the everyday — the aftermath; its ongoingness — is where Webster and Prikryl’s projects find their common ground. These poets’ insistence that the everyday is a common ground resonates as a quietly political assertion amidst the painful contradictions of our moment, in which we are surrounded by the rhetoric of individualized risk and responsibility, new threats to reproductive rights, and crises of carework. Striving toward new poetic forms, Midwood and Lapis each represent what Jane Mead calls “our mutual / intervals of response and longing” in urgent, vibrant language.