Ashley-Elizabeth Best’s Slow States of Collapse (ECW 2016)

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First books are challenging to review. They don’t thus far exist in a particular context within an author’s oeuvre and they are often (especially in this era of pump-em-out MFA programs) over-heralded by a strangely sycophantic system that feeds on newness as if each released collection of poems were the next “miraculous” instantiation of an iPhone.

As a reviewer, one wants to be honest and yet, aware that the newly published poet is usually fragile, never cruel, and then too, not patronizingly (and disrespectfully, as far as I’m concerned) saccharine either. I don’t write blurbs; I aim to compose thoughtful critiques grounded in my many decades of reading poetry and in the recognition of both aural pleasures and lax slips into cliche, abstractions, mixed metaphors or issues with line breaks or form.

Slow States of Collapse offers plenty of such poetic boon and bane.

First, the latter, a difficult but essential pointing out of a range of lingual issues that exist in the book, perhaps, one could argue, to underline the author’s frequently dissociative relationship with her physicality or family, or possibly, because too little editorial discernment was applied to cliches like “the braille of her spine” (I know it’s a cliche as I used it in my first book – shame on me :), “shrug each other off” , “spindly trees” or much more prevalent, disjointed metaphors such as a “branch’s embrace,” the “blade of his love snakes”, “tight wounds listening”, “I strum these chunks irregular”, “rubble of his pleasure hardening,” “the sluice of hollow spaces postures me,” “the bright bush jumps,” “tumbled bones snarled,” the “earth clasps the wind,” and “the sky chortles, flings its wrecked hold.” This tactic is so consistent though, I can’t help but feel such jarrings are deliberate, this loosening of sense-making between noun and verb. It certainly serves to convey an alienated state. And yet.

More of an issue, if one accepts this tendency as stylistic or fused to the occasionally harsh subject matter in which abandonment of various sorts predominates, are the abstractions or pathetic fallacies, say “the churches of his tears,” or “the tooth of time.” Such constructions rarely get to the guts of anything. They are, simply put, lazy, short cuts, dead ends.

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Fortunately, although there are few poems unmarred to a certain extent by these tendencies, Best is able to see and hear the world in a unique mode or voicing, and this ability gestures towards her potential as a poet, one who may even come to ring out as mysteriously and compellingly as a Theodore Roethke or Elizabeth Bishop. Delectable diction laces the collection: hunkered, puckered, vector, jargon, rutilant, imperious, adnexal, palatial, sibilant, exculpate (though it’s overdone in this particular line in combination with friable), sententious and gambit. The initial stanza of “Looking out for No one” epitomizes Best’s promising “honeability”:

“The rutilant moon ascends the earth’s/progression of loss. His car drones onto/Wicklow Beach Road, kneels expectant/as I prep a bowl. His foot hammers/the pedal as I hold the pipe to his mouth, put/fire to it. We absent our bodies, shelter into/our hunger, gorge on cookies on the hood/of his car, watch the lake reach/in and pull out.”

There are still abstract moments like the car that “kneels expectant” but such a false-surreal instance is much more swallowable within the tangibilities of “Wicklow Beach Road” along with the pipe, cookies and lake. Similarly, in most of the five sections of “Algonquin Suite”, Best builds a vulnerable emotional state through tender, natural details, and echoed assonantal sounds such as “in the fold of your cold neck,” “flash dazzle” and “throat opens,” along with the deliciously thick alliteration of “every summer the same/stunted start, the slowing/of steady ritual.”

Taken individually, many of the pieces feel insufficient, but tonally the book grows on you so, by the end, one has entered an original aural and emotive space. Sharpened through a keener attention to metaphor, and its vivifying capacities, in particular, Best’s future poems may rise from their moments of collapse to etch themselves more memorably, in all their necessary fearlessness, in the reader’s psyche.

 

 

 

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