Jana Prikryl | No Matter | Tim Duggan Books: $15.00
There’s often a bouncy joie de vivre, sometimes a swagger about much of Jana Prikryl’s poetry. It seems to tilt on that fulcrum between observation and perception, which is a kind of muted introspection. We are often in the presence of someone who feels on the verge, but not quite, of being at home in their own skin. That is not to say that Prikryl cannot see difficulties in the road ahead, but she feels ready to address those difficulties with a mild, wry irony.
In the series of poems entitled, ‘Anonymous’ in No Matter, the narrator, who seems a lot like the authorizing consciousness of the book, i.e. Prikryl herself, looks at photographs, particularly of young women. In ‘Anonymous’;
… a third girl is centred in the centre of the picture.
She seems to sway, making a window between her waist and that of the tallest girl.
We see through this window to a window behind.
But she leans toward the tall girl, cocks her head, and looks at you.
It’s the look of a friend who knows you well.
This section is illustrative of Prikryl’s procedures as whole. There is the minute observation, couched in a rather muted, but subtly rhythmic writing, which accumulates, but isn’t afraid to interpolate either. That line about the viewer seeing through the window to the window behind is inserted into the description of the girl in the picture; even if it does follow on from the window in the previous line. Then we return to the ‘she’, who is truly anonymized in the pronoun, but who also ‘knows you well’. Prikryl’s skill is to hold these things together, in a way which makes emotional sense. And it is the emotional sense which often comes across in these poems, even as they seem to concentrate on the off-centre, the part of the picture in which something seems to obtrude into the central motif of the photo. The narrator’s gaze searches for connection and meaning with those part of the photograph which are potentially side-lined.
At the same time, Prikryl writes, ‘I’ll be honest with you, it’s difficult / to like the men in these photographs. / My contempt might be capable / of reanimating them, the men alone, so deep / does power lodge in them, no / that can’t be right / when it’s the soil / and they the famished little roots.’ Oooh! Sharp intake of breath!!! But Prikryl is equally capable of sending ‘her’ boyfriend out to get a Hugo Boss suit altered at the local tailors and then grimacing at the outcome. If there are failures then we’re all capable of them.
Many of the poems are depictions of New York where Prikryl is a senior editor at the New York Review of Books. And in the way that much travel literature is actually writing about an exploration of the self, Prikryl’s poems ‘about’ New York are often poems about herself in New York. The streets and cafes of Brooklyn and Manhattan often orientate and locate the self in Prikryl’s poems, the city and the self mingling to become an inner psychogeography, one of the other. This mingling allows Prikryl to spin off and muse on the nature of the city itself. In the poem, ‘Vertical’, Prikryl comments,
Just walk and let the city’s map draw you
elsewhere, somewhere else
with it. Rarely did I enter thus
into collaboration, so cold
it seemed to surprise myself.
I consider it a measure of distance-
far be it from me-the idea of going away
had gone. Name me a city
as bullying as this one.
The self of the narrator sits fairly and squarely at the centre of this poem. The inner dialogue of the writing is a musing on one intention after another, ‘Rarely did I enter thus’ and ‘I consider it’, and that almost laugh-out-loud pun on ‘Far be it from me’. This latter is a rationalizing which is instantly subverted by its isolation from complement which ought to follow it. And pulled into this are the effects of the city, ‘collaboration’, the measuring of distance, the city as bully. In this poem, the narrator immediately muses on another city, Dublin, seen as, ‘Mean as in low and dun, / the finest avenues the emptiest / and dingiest.’ That might be the result of the humans who force themselves onto the city and bully it themselves, of course, ‘The information / of the city, any city, will submit / to redaction for, yes, him / financing the air up there, / the shadow real estate.’ Is that ‘him’ the current President of the United States? Or is it any developer in any city, peddling a shadow real estate, while railing against a shadow deep state?
To locate within the city is often to travel lightly through it. You might be carrying something through the city, along Sixth Avenue, for example, but, at the end of it, the travelling’s what you’ve done. One of the Sibyl poems (there are five ‘Sybil’ poems; seven ‘Anonymous’ poems, and some ‘Stoic’ and ‘Waves’ poems) begins:
I held a case
Sixth Avenue rewarded with a name for that undoing
walking up you turn left for the west and right for the east
that’s all the map there’ll be then
… and finishes…
I wasn’t about to hand it off to anyone
not even you
I’m no messenger
The spacing of the lines might mimic the pacing of the narrator along its avenues. It also mimics the pacing of the self within those streets. If it is a sibyl that paces these streets, it is a sibyl that knows its limits, whose prophecies are at best muted, retracted even in their offering. If the title of ‘sibyl’ is attached, it is as a kind of aspiring, almost a yearning, a nod towards titular gods. As the final ‘Sibyl’ poem notes,
it hit me
as riddles it scribbled on fallen leaves
were tossed up by the hottest breeze
that only a poet would make the tree
oak, those lobes, those tines would hardly fit
a syllable, and felt so close to one
who’d plant such little jokes …
while the seer sits
inside a stone and stuffs her face with it.
This is one of the few poems in the book with a ‘conventional’ form; fourteen lines split into two quatrains and two tercets, i.e., a sonnet, albeit of the unrhymed kind. And if it is love poem towards the sibyl-like vocation of the poet then it is clearly a deeply ambivalent one. At these moments, Prikryl undercuts the general uplifted tone to these poems. And, as we have seen above, Prikryl is capable of swingeing irony.
James Woods, in the back cover blurb for these poems, invokes John Ashbery, and that comparison feels just. There’s that rangy, loose-limbed sweep in these poems that Ashbery and the New York school developed and which it feels that Prikryl has inherited. And in that sweep, there is a richness and depth which is always involving. There’s a fluency to Prikryl; her first book, The After Party, clocked in at 112 pages and this book published just three years after her first is only slightly shorter. It will be interesting to follow where that fluency will take her and us. But it will certainly be worth paying attention to.
By Ian Pople