Problematic Indirection, Trina Burke on Paige Ackerson-Kiely


Trina Burke holds an MFA from the University of Montana and an MA in creative writing from Western Washington University. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in 580 Split, The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Phoebe. She works as a freelance editor in Seattle.

 

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In No One’s Land

Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Ahsahta Press, 2007

 

Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s author’s statement about her debut In No One’s Land engages in problematic indirection, “I find it difficult to discuss In No One’s Land or my work in general in any way that isn’t prefaced with: ‘I might have had a nebulous feeling about something, I don’t know what—I remember it was small and fleeting—at one time or another, but that, my friend, I cannot say with any certainty.’” This is a refrain we hear all the time from young poets: “I’m not the one to talk about my work” or “I can’t really articulate what I was trying to do” or “It just came out that way. It’s a mystery to me.” All such statements seem to be translations of “Don’t look at me.” But Ackerson-Kiely takes a stab at more substantive commentary later noting

David McDuff in his book Ice Around Our Lips described other work of Gripenberg’s era as ‘the elaboration of an austerely beautiful nature poetry in which man is portrayed as a lonely, alien guest awaiting reabsorption into a cosmic night.’ Although I would never embolden my own verse in such a lofty and lovely description, [my emphasis] I cannot help but feel that there is some relationship there—if only because I clutched at it so unbecomingly…

While we can appreciate that nice, fat slice of humble pie, we must also wonder if this sort of exaggerated humility is genuinely benefiting either writer or reader. It is as if the poet does not wish to commit to a reading of her own work. I can certainly sympathize. How many times have I criticized artist statements as useless, self-indulgent, or flat-out inaccurate? And how many times have I made similar claims of ignorance about my own work? As a reader, I am not entirely drawn in by these milquetoast attempts at creating a context for the work. As a writer, I am frightened by the mirror being held up to my own face.

My capacity for the purposes of this review, however, is as a reader, and as such, I have to wonder whether an author’s resistance to making a solid statement about her work belies an underlying lack of commitment to making a statement in the work itself. To address this properly requires me to leave author’s statement behind and look to the book itself.

 

            Ackerson-Kiely takes her title from a line by Finnish writer Bertel Gripenberg translated as “In no one’s land, with no one will I stay.” The opening prose poem, “Foreplay,” locates itself in a motel room indicating a displacement of the speaker from what is familiar. Ackerson-Kiely deftly condenses images leading the reader through a thicket of unbalancing associations: “The sheets are not soft reminders of human capacity for forgiveness with their random tufts like a father roughing up his boy’s hair; son you’ve made me proud. There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub.” The stage is set as un-homey, unfamiliar, and un-familial as throughout we are constantly given foreign lands—Minsk, Spanish, Berlin, the Baltic, etc.—to disorient us.

            The arc of the book can be traced by examining each of the five sections that are book-ended by stand-alone poems. Section 1 sets up the question of the speaker’s separation or individuation from others:

You weren’t anywhere I was planning to go. (6)

 

When I need you you don’t come running. ( 8 )

 

So that the last woman

left

in the bar

is the same woman

in the bar earlier

saying

yeah, I’ve got some abandonment issues. (9)

The second section progresses into the desire for shepherding, a gathering together which ultimately goes unmet:

They will call all of us in

on cold nights,

though no one calls

to me specifically. (15)

 

You are a hero, heroes help others. (16)

 

The sheer numbers acquit you,

turn away from your glib matter while

quietly the stars undress in the dark,

(there are thousands, thousands). (19)

 

Nights from now I will join the river.

I will say current and it will be mine,

as a man turned away at the door. (21)

Section 3 is tricky to categorize as themes of worship, power, guilt, and, particularly, sexual shame or shamelessness develop. Perhaps instructive here is Ackerson-Kiely’s author’s statement, “Admittedly I am uncomfortable with worship in all of its various incarnations yet I struggle with keeping desire at bay, as desire feels like a less informed version of worship.” The poems “Privacy” and “Prayer for Singularity” repeat the phrase “our father” introducing the theme of paternalized male dominance and eroticized subjugation, which is layered into a larger lexicon of prayer, hymn, and Old Testament references. The disparate notions of the bodily and the spiritual create an awkward tension that is, nonetheless, pleasing—

At least 20 minutes a day

In the bathroom come

Shooting

 

up Father

 

Is he red and dead

Done Father,

 

whose art

Is simply not your name. (30)

 

To need to be pushed inside

of something to become

alive. (36)

 

If I knew the world was going

to end, I’d just run out into
the street and fuck the first

chick I saw, says

a teenage virgin. (31)

 

shame is not a silent bride

rolling her eyes at a fitting. (39-40)

 

I am frightened of the intimate thing. (41)

 

Tell me how they approached your hand, which you pretended held food, but was merely a closed fist.

The relationships in this section are fraught with power struggles, fear of intimacy, and separation of bodily from spiritual desires. One might argue these are the central tensions of the book, and the purpose of section 3 is to name overtly the stakes.

It would make sense, then, that section 4 would complicate the stakes further progressing the arc of the speaker’s journey. I’m not sure that this is the case. The poems of this section largely deal with the absence of what should be there and the implications of the seen and unseen. Rather than moving toward resolution, the speaker continues to both desire and create distance at cross-purposes.

You

are Jerusalem—

over there. (46)

 

wanting a reason to stop

and say:

 

Man, I could stay

here forever. (51)

 

I am talking around the fact that you aren’t supposed to be here, in flesh or in my capacity to imagine my flesh as yours—touching me the way you would pull back the smallest bit of which from a kerosene lantern. Make it fucking darker. (55)

The use of “fuck” in this last excerpt attempts to voice the speaker’s frustration, but is unnecessary. The voice already exhibits the speaker’s growing impatience with how desire never quite meets reality, at least, not without force.

The final section of the In No One’s Land provides little relief. In the opening poem, “Greenland,” the speaker attempts to pin down the act of dying through a series of increasingly lonesome and desperate images, the most disturbing of which could be a portrait of the speaker herself: “Dying is a woman so alone in a city that she does not think we see her adjusting her undergarments as she walks, head bent so that her hair falls across her face like the relief of driving snow just when you needed a reason to turn in for the night.” This is not only death, but voluntary death by means of self-isolation and willful dismissal of what is outside oneself. I doubt if any book can entirely dwell successfully in this brand of isolation.  

            In No One’s Land could have been a commentary on the distinctly American manner of recognizing every land as our own, of assuming our right-to-be-there, of ignoring the ownership and population of other places, but it’s not. It’s too grounded in the speaker’s “I” throughout to be a significant commentary on society, culture, or, more generally, the external world. Even the “You” is not really characterized with the landscape internalized as everything is sucked inside the persona of the I—location, people, objects. Ackerson-Kiely has not written a humble book. Her speaker is firmly at the center of things and anyone or anything else populating the poem is simply flowing in orbit around her. The speaker is not placed in a larger context as one of many, but rather is one of one—THE one.

Everything in the book is defined by or in terms of the “I,” which is not to say that Ackerson-Kiely’s speaker is an example of the Martin Buber’s concept of the I-I  attitude (“Some live in a strange world bounded by a path from which countless ways lead inside. If there were road signs, all of them might bear the same inscription: I-I”). The “I” of this book is observant and aware of others. Some of the most moving passages are those in which the speaker simply observes another person living a moment or enters into such a moment as a way of metaphorizing her own experience. For instance, in “Interrogation” the speaker inhabits a multitude of conditional statements leading up to the question at the center of the poem: “Did you really love him?” Her answer:

I would have to say yes—hands feeling around my clavicle

the way a woman with a pearl necklace

fondles that pearl necklace

except that I haven’t got one

and so lightly pinch at the skin

in a way that leaves a trail of red

inching toward my throat

which is slowly closing now

which is almost completely shut. (63)

The speaker has taken the speculative situation and entered into it through the guise of “a woman,” becoming the woman who loved the man. It would seem, then, that the speaker does have experiences with others, rather than simply using them, talking at them or of them.

In addition, there is a smattering of outward-looking or not-quite “I”-centered prose poems. A better way to characterize these poems might be to say that they are “distanced from the speaker” by addressing a mitigating “you” that may or may not be self-reflexive. These include “Foreplay,” “One Type of Hunger,” and “Greenland.” These are somewhat odd choices, since “Foreplay” is the introductory poem of the book and “One Type of Hunger” and “Greenland” are the opening poems of their respective sections. “Economics Theory” and “After Hours,” the last two poems in the book, are somewhat like “Foreplay” addressing a “You” that may or may not be reflexive (i.e. the speaker) or the reader. The final poem, “After Hours,” ends with a “thank you” that seems to break the frame of the poem, addressing a “you” outside of it. A nod (a finale bow?) at the end of the speaker’s journey?

And so, in the end, how does it all hang together, if the introduction of the idea of individuation does not progress to a resolution? One would expect the speaker to find a way into community with others or, alternatively, a way to accept her isolation. The book does neither. “After Hours,” (75) set in a restaurant, dwells in the isolation, “Where are heart and soul hanging out, someone singing sweetly, someone picturing you in your undecorated room eating from a bag.” The line is not punctuated as a question, rather as a statement of unlocation. The waitress, who is a character in the poem, asks “Will there be anything else” and the question, of course, holds more than its quotidian meaning. The answer, two lines later: “No, nothing else / thank you.” I suppose one might read into this an acceptance of or resignation to the isolation that has plagued the speaker throughout the book. Maybe I’m not satisfied because it is, especially in this cultural time and place, a sort of horror movie ending where the protagonist not only doesn’t prevail over the forces of evil, but is recruited by the dark side. She not only accepts her fate, but embraces it with gratitude.

 

 

Notes

Ackerson-Kiely, Page. http://ahsahtapress.boisestate.edu/books/ackerson-kiely/ackerson-kiely-author.htm

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Touchstone, 1970. 11

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