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Poetry Review: My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer by Paige Ackerson-Kiely

August 28, 2012

From “First Contact:”

Name this:

If you buy shoes
from a factory where children work
so many hours then go blind then die
you have agreed that those children should
go blind & die? She like a whisker
measures each body in relation to her body:

He is mostly in the other room
unknotting his laces. LET ME SPEAK.

The question posed would be an excellent one for any ethicist to address. What is it doing here and why is it immediately elided?

Since Romanticism, writers keep going into the forest/ocean/desert/arctic, to raise the poem as though it were a way of retreating, but each time an interdependence is revealed among the words we find there and the lives we live here (in cities, with technology, in front of our computers). This volume is inspired by the notebooks of Richard E Byrd, a naval officer known for his expeditions to the North and South pole. I think we can read the title – “My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer” – in three ways: Love can refer to Byrd; love can refer to poetry; love can refer to the act of loving others. This corresponds to a three-way metaphor between exploration of the natural world, exploration of language (poetry), and exploration of Other (love). What is discovered to be central to these three activities is the sublime— pleasure that can only exist in the medium of pain (to paraphrase Kant). A favorite symbol for this among American poets seems to be snow, as is attested by Stevens’ Snowman, Dickinson’s Water, is taught by thirst, or Lasky’s Emotions. And here, for example from “Architectures:”

Someone’s dead.
Pain on the floor, hurts like snow.
Soft at first.

Fundamental to it functioning as such a symbol, snow must be chosen. One must want to walk into the snow in order to be in the snow, and not as a means to finding food or having sex. In “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” the insightful Josef Pieper divides our behavior into three categories: Work, or pain we accept as a means of acquiring future pleasure; idleness, or pleasure for its own sake; and leisure, or struggle that is its own pleasure. Pain, pleasure, and pleasure-pain. Leisure is at risk of being dominated by work and idleness. He writes:

Of course the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.

Pieper’s concept of leisure corresponds to Ackerson-Kiely’s concept of exploration, which is similarly threatened by an obsession with logic to the exclusion of art. To reject these poems because they contain too many unanswered questions and incomplete sentences is to reject curiosity. Language isn’t being reaped, cooked and served; language is being wandered through and gathered from. It’s the difference between a farm delivering a product to a restaurant and a forest evolving an intricate ecosystem. From “Waitress Address:”

The body was a language and it talked to itself. The body was a chopstick, a kettle, a regrettable dishwasher holding the crystal to the light, saying, not quite yet[…] The body waited for response. It grew tired proffering plate after plate bearing death that was inconsequential. The death on the plate absolutely silent as when they remove a man’s hands, according to Shari’s[…] To raise the fork as though it were an explication,  each tine an independent song, hither and thither to this, thine mouth. I did not understand the cutlery tray.

Ackerson-Kiely understands that for language to be a living ecosystem, for language not to be silent, we must respect the essential role that accident plays. Mentioning “ankles” is a perfectly good motivation for describing something else as “angling.” The two words do, after all, sound similar. That is, they are next to one another in our lexicon, and the author goes where the terrain takes her. She places her hands on a place that is not her own. From “This Landscape of Request:”

Petitioned reciprocation
of my hands on your face

in any of the above landscapes.
Called for gentleness,

the somniferous monogamy of grass
brushing the ankle, sky above bleeding

blue. Were I to quit this angling,
this remittance. Appeal to the pocket

of your overcoat that my hands
might fill. Had we a home.

Had I ever been pleased.

The language was a body, and it felt itself. Or language is body, is the body realizing it is not alone, is the body making itself part of a deeper, wider syntax and thereby achieving a greater unity, and thereby transcending into family, community. To me, by far the most exciting poem in this volume is the one that bears its name. From “My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer:”

Waiting for his love to take, I held him clumsily. His face was without form and darkness moved upon it. I was told: You must keep him still for six days. I needed to be sure he did not try to leave, so I asked: Let there be light, and the sanatorium became light and it was a soft yellow light, and good to his features[…] He called out some names on the sixth morning. He said Barstool and dispatch and megawatt and Thermopolis, and all of these things became as he called them and it was good, it was good to have a list. Late that evening, after he described fortitude and unctuous he said a word I had not heard begore but it made my teeth ache and a slow itch spread down my forearm and i thought I felt a dainty woman wearing one of those fuzzy pastel sweaters with a plunging neckline standing close to me – her soft breath against my neck – and I wanted to kiss someone really bad but also to remain still forever so that this feeling might be known to anyone who happened upon me. He said Helper and he made a motion with his hands, like he was breaking an egg onto a hot frying pan while a hissing sound emerged from his mouth, after which he lay back on his bed with his arms thrown across his chest like dirty laundry. Although I knew not of dirty laundry at the time, I understood he was naming me and it was good. It was good to place my head in my very hands, which were not as I imagined them – hatch batter downers, Pious, wincing shovels – but as he named them: Your Hands. And with this knowledge I rested. I dreamt sweetly.

The biblical parallels here are obvious, but two incredible contrasts are also apparent: The cosmological scale is brought down to that of interpersonal relationship, and the roles of creator and created become confused and unfixed. The sublime is presented as a shared act of convalescence,  the body emerging into love and language, then returning to itself and knowing itself for the first time (“my head in my very hands, which were not as I imagined them”). Similarly, each word can be understood as an independent unit of meaning, but only once they are all experienced in interdependent relationships with other words – in sentences, in poems, in a wider syntax. We cry “LET ME SPEAK,” and then discover that our ability to do so is only achieved by listening, by exploring.

Of course, always and necessarily, eventually the explorer is dead. But the exploration is built (built, I say) outside of time. The presence of the sublime is what makes us conscious of death, but the embrace of the sublime is what makes death obsolete.

I’m afraid this discussion doesn’t do justice to the lushness of the poetry. Paige Ackerson-Kiely offers immersive descriptions of (among other things) robustly autumnal autumns and wintry winters. (Living in Texas while having grown up in Indiana, this makes me feel quite nostalgic.) Let the poems themselves convince you of their worth in these regards.  My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer is her second book of poems, coming after 2007’s In No One’s Land. Both are from the wonderful Ahsahta Press.

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