Investigations in absentia
On Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s poetry resides in no one’s land, in the heartland of John Keats’s negative capability. In Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed, Ackerson-Kiely makes a bittersweet home there.
This chapbook — a collection of twenty-two prose poems that follow the case of a drowned girl through the eyes of an aloof detective — is filled with lyric possibility, crime fiction, love, loss, solar tetherball, identity questioning, heavy doses of negation, and bleak-as-hell small-city-America depictions. This list, I would bet a Sizzler dinner, covers the thematic footprint; however, it is the poetic nucleus of this genre-bending creation — the proverbial pole to the tetherball’s centrifugal force — that I hope to highlight here.
Central to the chapbook’s intrigue is what’s missing: in its pages we find as much absence as populace. “I like the photos of missing children tacked up on the grocery store bulletin boards,” explains the narrator, the aforementioned small-town gumshoe (12). While his job is, ostensibly, to solve the case (and thus resolve what is absent, mysterious), such observations lean more towards the poetic than the evidential: “If you have any information please contact. I’m trying to focus on the distinctive way the carts are strewn over the parking lot, a plastic bag aloft over rows of old trucks, the beautiful woman, dark hair across her face, starting a van.” In the speaker’s aesthetic eye, the grocery store parking lot becomes a repository for the orphaned, the lost — people and objects absent from some prettier life elsewhere.
In this way, Ackerson-Kiely reaffirms how poetic possibility operates in a sphere opposite certitude, opposite positive information and narrative closure. Such is the central idea of negative capability: the ability to reside in uncertainty, to write within and of a world too complex to be easily resolved or reduced. And what’s brilliant about Ackerson-Kiely’s generic monster is how it sets up detective fiction against lyric poetry to create a tension between the narrative pursuit of information and the aesthetic blur of lyricism.
This tension between aesthetics and narrative gets worked out in a number of ways, the most pervasive being the bewitching presence of eros within mystery. The fifth of the untitled prose poems begins: “The thing about being wanted for a crime is that they want you, even when they don’t know who you are” (5). As though stuck on the idea of a “person of interest,” the speaker moves uncannily back and forth between murder suspects and potential spouses. Finally, thinking about “someone you’d better not,” the kind of person “you’d never marry,” he comes to a terra incognita where domestic bliss becomes his own unsolved crime.
The strange relationship between love and homicide begins in the first poem of the collection, as the detective conflates the dead girl with his ex-girlfriend. The entwining of physical death and failed relationship leads to a melancholic poetry stuffed with abject beauty. The ever-absent “girl” (both victim and ex) is consistently evoked by the gritty reality surrounding the detective, but because of “her” absence, she quickly shades into an imagined, aesthetic realm. For instance, as a result of the victim’s unknown identity, “They called her C. in the reports,” which the detective recognizes as “A good place to start a major scale” (4). Here, missing or negated information leads to aesthetic representation. Consider, too: “My girlfriend broke her leg some years ago. Had to sit on the toilet while I washed up and down her back with a sponge. Each knob of her spine I could not turn to open that little unhappy door, let it out, let it look in the mirror mouthing: enough, already” (6). Again, the frustration of narrative development becomes a platform from which to launch the poetic.
The entangling of different narrative threads leads to another facet of negative capability — a breakdown of identity that in turn allows for sympathetic identification. To conflate murder and breakup not only encourages the detective to find similarities between the drowned girl and his ex-girlfriend; it also encourages him to identify with (or as?) the murderer: “Mad about her death, about her leaving for another life. They are closer everyday to extradition, and I wonder after last supper, when all is said and done. I’d ask not to taste a thing, but for her delivered unto me in live flesh” (18). The metaphoric link between detective and murderer leads to narrative complication, certainly. But it also affords the speaker with other means for understanding himself and his relationship to the world, which is a necessity given the speaker’s realization that “I could not understand my loneliness, the shape of what I was looking at” (8).
The blurring of the speaker’s identity points, inevitably, to a lack of it. He acknowledges his shifty significance, noting “how my face is a room to be occupied” (16). Rather than a firm subject for study, the detective is rather akin to the aforementioned parking lot — a reservoir for feelings that don’t fit neatly into the narratives of daily lives. Non-traditionally, this detective is unable to solve mysteries and instead acknowledges the ill-fitting fragments of the world. Such is the case when a hotel clerk looks at him “with all the books at her bedside flashing in her eyes, words and feelings like obscure designer gowns she had no place to wear” (9). At times, it is difficult not to see the speaker/detective as a place for Ackerson-Kiely to wear the metaphors that don’t fit elsewhere. Indeed, because of its highly poetic language, the author’s presence is never fully occluded by the diegetical world of the chapbook.
Yet it might be more accurate (and productive) to see the speaker as a personification of that desire to be someone different, that need to mean something else, because meaning ourselves has proven unbearable. Such is an all too tragic (and too common, I imagine) human experience, and Ackerson-Kiely slips these moments into the mouth of her speaker: “I wanted to be something else, the kind of thing that needed tending. New model pick-up an old friend washed every Sunday afternoon, by hand, then drove far away” (13). Apropos of small-town narratives, locals here never get loose of the tragedies that surround them. Even when the businesses leave one by one, and only the storefronts remain like so many vacant faces, the speaker is left to wonder (as we all are) how life will continue amidst nothingness, to wonder who will care. Such is the plight and beauty of Ackerson-Kiely’s detective-poet, which is perhaps most evident when he momentarily dwells in the old shed where the drowned girl had resided. Barely interested in the random objects the shed contains, the speaker notes: “The single window looked out over a meadow swaying importantly. There was nothing to see but I saw it all, humming tunelessly to let anyone, anyone at all, know I was there” (4).
1. Readers interested in a brief rundown of Keats’ theory might consider Maria Popova’s article “John Keats on ‘Negative Capability,’ Embracing Uncertainty, and Celebrating the Mysterious” on the Brian pickings website. For more in-depth discussion, W. J. Bate’s Negative Capability: On the Intuitive Approach in Keats, first published in 1939, continues to be a touchstone for critical discussions of Keats’s theory of living amidst uncertainty; see Negative Capability: On the Intuitive Approach in Keats, ed. Maura Del Serra (Contra Mundum Press, 2012).
2. The chapbook is not paginated, so I have suggested page numbers starting with the first prose poem. Each poem appears on a single page with no pages between. Thus, there are twenty-two poems across twenty-two pages.